Robert Hampton

Another visitor! Stay a while… stay forever!

18th September 2014

Reichstag Night

Just before 4pm on Friday afternoon, I reached the Reichstag building in central Berlin. I’d seen the building from the outside on my last visit to the city, but this time I was going to actually see inside. It’s a grand structure, with the famous inscription DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE (“To the German people”) providing a bold statement of intent, even though the slogan has not always been adhered to over the years.

Reichstag building

Here’s my best GCSE history lesson: the Reichstag building was the seat of the German parliament from the late 19th century, until in 1933 it was severely damaged by fire. This was the event which notoriously gave Hitler all the justification he needed to abrogate basic human rights and establish a totalitarian state. Like much of the rest of Berlin, the building was left in ruins at the end of World War II. Although it was repaired after the war, it saw little use during the Cold War division of the city. Only in 1999, when the Bundestag returned to Berlin post-reunification, was the building finally restored to its former glory.

As part of the restoration, a new glass dome (designed by Sir Norman Foster) now sits atop the building. It is open to the public by prior booking, offering excellent views across the Berlin skyline. I was eager to go – practically the first thing I did after booking my plane ticket was to head to the Reichstag web site and arrange a visit.

Clutching a printout of the confirmation letter e-mailed to me, I walked round to the visitor’s entrance, a portakabin-type building where we queued up to go through airport-style security. My letter stated that my visit was scheduled for 4.30pm, but I was allowed in at 4.15pm – presumably the time is more of a guideline than something strictly adhered to.

Once through security, we were quickly ushered into the main building. No delay could be tolerated: A couple of people stopped to take photos and were told to hurry up because they were delaying the rest of the group.

I was squashed into a lift alongside 50 or so fellow visitors, for the cosy ride up to the roof. I emerged onto the roof terrace. The weather wasn’t brilliant, sadly – the skies were grey and there was a feeling that it was about to start raining – but the views were great nevertheless.

Reichstag Dome

It’s possible to walk right around the roof terrace, offering the opportunity to see the city from every side. First, a view towards Berlin’s grand new main station (Hauptbahnhof):

Berlin Hauptbahnhof

Next, looking towards the TV Tower (Fernsehturm) on Alexanderplatz. The square building in front of it is the International Trade Centre.

TV Tower and International Trade Centre

A view over the Tiergarten, giving some idea of just how big it is. Beyond that lies Alexanderplatz with the Deutsche Bahn Tower.

Tiergarten and Potsdamer Platz

A different angle on the Brandenburg Gate:

Brandenburg Gate

And finally, a view looking across the Platz der Republic. To the right is the Federal Chancellery, where Angela Merkel and her staff work. The curved building in the distance on the left of the picture is the House of World Cultures, a centre for international arts.

Federal Chancellery

Now, it was time to go in the dome itself. The striking feature in the centre of the dome is a mirrored cone. Not only is it interesting visually, it actually helps funnel sunlight into the building, reducing energy consumption. At the base, there are information panels explaining the history of the building.

The top of the dome itself is accessed by a walkway which spirals around the dome to a platform at the top.

Mirrors Spiral

At the very top, the dome is actually open to the elements through the “eye” in the structure. On this top platform, the authorities had kindly provided plenty of seats, so I took some time to rest up here before heading back down.

Reichstag Dome Eye

The views up here were probably slightly more spectacular, but they didn’t photograph well due to the reflections of the glass. Here’s one photo that did come out well, and given the current political climate back home, it was nice to see a country proudly flying the EU flag:

EU Flag

I’d spent about an hour here, and it was time to head back. I squashed into the same lift and exited the building the way I’d come in. It was a great place to visit. It would probably be even better on a clear, sunny day, but it was completely free of charge so I can’t complain, really.

There was a final postscript to the visit – a quick ride on Berlin’s U55, surely one of the strangest underground lines in existence anywhere. This short U-Bahn line is barely a mile long and serves just three stations. It is also not physically connected to any other part of Berlin’s U-Bahn network.

The U55 is a classic example of financial mismanagement and bureaucracy. It was originally intended to be an extension of Berlin’s U5 line which would connect Hauptbahnhof, Brandenburg Gate and the new Government buildings to the U-Bahn network. Financial difficulties resulted in the project being postponed. However, the German government objected, citing the federal funding which had been provided for the project. They issued an ultimatum: if the line wasn’t built, Berlin would have to give all the money back.

Eventually a compromise was reached: the nearly-finished section of tunnel between Hauptbahnhof and Brandenburg Gate would be finished, with the rest of the line to be completed at some unspecified later date. The double-track tunnels and three stations were constructed and opened to the public in 2009. For the foreseeable future they are served only by a shuttle train service: one train running back and forth every ten minutes.

There is actually a Bundestag station serving the government quarter, but I decided to walk back to Brandenburger Tor station so I could ride the line end-to-end.

U55 train at Brandenburger Tor

I jumped on board the train, along with a handful of other passengers. The doors closed and we set off. Three minutes later we arrived at the other end of the line, Hauptbahnhof. This is a palatial station, but it felt rather lifeless. One of the two platforms is fenced off – with only one train on the line, there is no need for the second track.

Hauptbahnhof (U-Bahn)

The good news is that the U5 extension is now underway again and this miniature railway will be connected up to the rest of the U-Bahn network by 2019. Until then, it remains an amusing quirk of an already very quirky city.

In contrast to its underground station, Hauptbahnhof itself is a palatial structure. Before it opened in 2006, there were two separate stations for long distance services – Zoologischer Garten in the west, and Ostbahnhof in the east. This, of course, reflected the divided city that existed between 1961 and 1989.

The station is on two levels. The high-level station is on a line running east-west through the city. When building the station, the opportunity was also taken to build a new railway tunnel running north to south, to provide extra capacity and shorten journey times. The lower level platforms are therefore at right-angles to the high-level lines.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof Upper Level Berlin Hauptbahnhof Lower Level

It was an incredibly ambitious scheme and it seems to work well, although there have been some grumblings about the downgrading of Zoo and Ostbahnhof stations to mere “regional” services.

I would have more time to explore Hauptbahnhof on Sunday evening, when I came here to catch my train home (of which more later). For now, I headed for the S-Bahn platforms to catch a train back to my hotel.

Hauptbahnhof S-Bahn

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