With Europe marking the 70th anniversary of key World War II battles this year, destinations across the Continent are preparing to welcome history buffs and mainstream travelers alike.
Berlin and Warsaw, two cities just over 300 miles apart, share histories of dramatic destruction and rebirth following the war. On a recent trip that included both cities, we traveled between them on an 80-minute Air Berlin flight.
Warsaw: City of contrasts
The first thing that struck me about Poland's capital, which attracts some 12 million visitors a year, was the extent to which it was leveled during the war. Virtually everything you see has been rebuilt from the ground up, even in the walled Old Town. Reconstruction has taken place in fits and starts, resulting in a city of contrasting styles, from Imperial to Stalinesque.
Improvement projects along the banks of the Vistula River are under way with an eye to attracting outdoor restaurants and cafes. We took a scenic flat-bottomed boat tour via Discover Wisla River tour company. Visit www.discoverwislariver.pl.
Warsaw's burgeoning restaurant scene offers everything from traditional folkloric fare to kitschy eateries paying homage to the Soviet era. Also in transition is the Praga district, fast becoming the haunt of young artists and musicians and offering a bustling nightlife.
Despite these signs of renaissance, the city's traumatic history is still evident thanks to haunting statues and monuments that dot the landscape and a roster of museum exhibitions.
To understand what took place here in 1944, we spent an intense afternoon at the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Opened in July 2004, it has quickly become one of the city's most popular attractions, with a half-million visitors a year. The interactive museum tells the story of the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis during which 85% of the city was destroyed and some 200,000 people were killed in 63 days, while the Soviet army looked on from the other side of the river embankment.
Highlights include to-scale re-creations of the city's sewers, where 1,000 refugees hid and which visitors can crawl through, and a 3-D film taken by the Soviets after the city was destroyed. Sixty percent of the museum's visitors are under age 30, up to 20% are international, and every year veterans are invited to attend a memorial to the Uprising's anniversary, which this year takes place in August. See www.1944.pl/en.
Berlin: Storied walls
In Berlin, World War II sites include the Book Burning Memorial at Bebelplatz, a simple glass square in the street offering a view of empty bookshelves to commemorate the 20,000 books burnt by the Nazis in 1933, and various fragments of the Berlin Wall, constructed not during but as a result of the city's postwar division.
For an unvarnished look at the atrocities of the Third Reich, the Topography of Terror Documentation Center, which opened in 1987 on Berlin's 750th anniversary, sits a few blocks from the infamous and touristy Checkpoint Charlie, where foreign visitors passed between East and West Berlin before reunification. The Terror exhibition was constructed at the site of the SS headquarters and features photos, many taken by the Nazis themselves, along with explanations in English and film clips from key events during the era. It drew 900,000 people in 2012. Visit www.topographie.de/en.
A few blocks away at the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse, "The Wall: The Asisi Panorama of a Divided City" (www.asisi.de) depicts what everyday life looked like on both sides of the wall in the 1980s. The exhibition features audio from the era (all in German with the exception of President Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech from 1963).
Near the Brandenburg Gate, the outdoor Holocaust Memorial, with its eerie concrete rectangles, has no entrance or admission charge and is always open for visitors to wander through. The architect Peter Eisenman has never explained the work, leaving visitors to interpret it on their own.
The Jewish Museum Berlin boasts an eye-popping exterior, mixing old and new with a cube-like extension constructed in 2012. The complex has both permanent and temporary installations and features sections with evocative names like Garden of Exile and the Holocaust Tower.
A highlight of a visit to Berlin for World War II buffs is a Fat Tire Bike tour along the Wall that offers commentary from seasoned guides who know the city and its history.
Tours include a Nazi Germany/Third Reich tour and a Berlin Wall & Cold War tour. The tours are suitable for virtually any skill level and include snack breaks at local eateries. The fat tires are designed to prevent cyclists from getting caught in the tram tracks that intersect city streets.