One of the things I love most when we travel is discovering that the city we’re visiting has made quite a few of its best bits free to the public. Berlin is one such city. We kept ourselves very busy here for four days, and it ended up that only 2 out of the 10+ places we visited required us to pay an entrance fee. That’s pretty good odds! While I’m always a fan of free, occasionally it really is worth it to pay a little extra to see something special. That was definitely the case at Berliner Unterwelten and their WWII bunker tour that took us beneath the streets of Berlin and introduced us to a side of the city most people never see.
First off, let me say, photography is not allowed inside the tunnels. I’m not exactly sure why – maybe they don’t want photographers holding up the tours? So this post doesn’t have a lot of interesting pictures in it. I managed to take a few sneaky ones with my phone, but they definitely do not adequately illustrate what it’s like to go on this tour. I’ve included them only because what they do illustrate is how dark and windowless these bunkers are, which leads me to my next point – this tour is not for everyone. It’s very dark down here, sometimes completely pitch black, and many of the rooms you will enter are very small. This would not be the right thing to visit if you are bothered by darkness, being underground, or crowded, small spaces. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get on with the tour!
Berliner Unterwelten (English: Berlin Underworlds) is located in Gesundbrunnen, far enough away from where we were staying in Potsdamer Platz that we needed to take the S-Bahn for the first time on our trip. Because advance tickets are not sold for the tours, it’s very important to get to the office early, particularly if you want to get on one of the English tours which sell out very quickly. We arrived shortly after the offices opened, and got ourselves booked on the first tour at 11am. Berliner Unterwelten offers many different underground tours – the one we took was the Dark Worlds tour, exploring one of the last remaining civilian air raid shelters in Berlin.
Our tour guide was Cnaan, who absolutely made this tour for us. He is very well-informed about the history, and he passed it along to us in a way that didn’t bore us to death. (He was actually surprisingly funny considering the subject.) If he had been guiding any of the other tours while we were in town, I probably would have signed up for them immediately.
The Dark Worlds tour takes place directly beneath the entrance to the Gesundbrunnen station, with the train running beneath the bunker tunnels. The vibrations and noise of the metro rumbling through can be a little scary, but considering what these tunnels were used for, the unexpected noise and trembling of the ground intermittently throughout the tour sort of adds to the experience.
During WWII, the bunkers at Gesundbrunnen and others spread throughout the city were used to accommodate the many people who had to make their way here, often late at night, carrying just a small suitcase, every time the alarms went off signaling an approaching air raid. If your home or neighborhood did not have a suitable basement for shelter, the closest public bunker was your only option. And it was a crowded one at that. Most of the small rooms within the bunkers were equipped to hold double the amount of people you’d think could fit comfortably inside them.
Besides the toilet rooms and a couple of offices, the bunkers here were made up almost entirely of row after row of bunk beds and benches. Since that would make an awfully dull tour, what they’ve done is left a few of the rooms as they would have been during the war, and then used the rest of the space as a museum displaying artifacts from the era, some that were found right here in the tunnels. The museum is a time capsule of 1940’s German memorabilia, from games and toys to propaganda, as well as surviving artifacts from the war. My only complaint was not having enough time to look at everything in each room before it was time to move on to the next location.
During our 90-minute tour, our guide taught us the practical parts of “living” beneath the ground, like how special paint was used to illuminate the bunkers during a power outage and how communications were made within the bunker and with those on the outside. But the most memorable part for me was when he helped us to imagine what it would have been like to spend hours beneath the ground, only to be unsure of what the world would look like when you emerged. People would often wait all night, sitting on a bench, a bag in their lap, too afraid to fall asleep, but too tired to even do something as simple as converse. Often, the only noises in the bunkers were the sounds of the bombs making contact with the ground short distances away. It’s chilling, sitting on these same benches in the dark with a bunch of strangers, and realizing that, seventy years ago, people sat in much the same way, but under much more desperate circumstances.
It was a truly fascinating tour, and I was left wanting to see and hear more when it was over. Standing up on the street, you’d never know there’s this extensive network of bunkers just below your feet, its remnants left behind to remind us about this city’s turbulent past. I highly recommend you check out this tour or one of the others with Berliner Unterwelten if you’re looking for something unique to do while you’re in Berlin. It’s worth every bit of the €10 you’ll pay!
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