Berlin is Germany’s capital city and a place of great history and exciting modern culture.Throughout the 1990s and the beginning of 21C, the city has reinvented itself as a beacon for culture, freedom and liberty, whilst cherishing and rebuilding its great heritage. During the second world war 60% of the city’s buildings were damaged or destroyed by bombs. The former Soviet East German regime did not favour the rebuilding and renovation of what they deemed to be reminders of the former Prussian ruling elite.
At the forefront of a modern Germany which celebrates its diversity in the shadow of the atrocities committed by the National Socialist Regime under Adolf Hitler, Berlin is a broad-minded, all-embracing, dynamic city, the largest in Europe.
A fascination with the icon that was the Berlin wall was the main pull for me, but also an interest in the Berlin that was lost before the war, and the place of spies and secrets of the cold war years.The city was everything I had hoped it to be – and more – and over the course of four days I became one of its many admirers.
Schӧnefeld Airport lies to the south east of the city of Berlin and this is where I and my travelling companion touched down. On leaving the Airport we decided to make our way to our hotel by train; this turned out to be a bad idea and one we abandoned within twenty minutes of trying hard and getting nowhere. The German train station – or Bahnhof – is a bitter sweet place; most are unstaffed and this extends to the trains also. This means travelling for free – should somebody be so inclined – would be very easy: tickets are bought from machines, are never checked (no guards or station staff) and there are no barriers to pass through. Conversely, this means nobody is there to explain the mysteries of buying the right ticket from those less straightforward ticket machines such as the one at Schӧnefeld, or to provide help or advice. After spending 20 minutes queuing with a multitude of fellow arrivees to the city, only to find the machine would not issue the kind of ticket we wanted, we decided to jump in a cab. As I left this subterranean hell, I witnessed the looks of desperation on the faces of the people in the serpantine queue. By my estimation, the poor souls at the back would be waiting at least an hour to reach the machine.
Our hotel, Berlin Ost Best Western, was in the Friedrichshain area of the city. We realised we had struck lucky in choosing this busy, vibrant and Bohemian location. The standard 3* accommodation met all our needs and the staff were pleasant and helpful. An abundance of patisseries provided plenty of choice for breakfast each morning and we were similarly spoiled every evening as we ventured out for dinner. We’re both vegetarian and we were not disappointed.
After checking in, unpacking and enjoying a welcome lunch of generous-sized sandwiches at a friendly neighbourhood patisserie, we headed for the local U-bahn which was situated right outside our hotel. This time the machine was straightforward and thanks to a frequent service we were in AlexanderPlatz, central Berlin, within 10 minutes.
There we changed train and continued a little bit further to the still standing section of the Berlin wall which has been turned into the East Side Gallery.
Berlin is a city of art and expression and this takes many forms, not least graffiti. It is daubed in spray paint, from empty shop fronts to railway bridges and in some cases even private residences. This was one of the things which first struck us when we arrived. It has to be said though that this graffiti is smart; it’s interesting and often thought provoking and challenging, and it isn’t found on heritage sites……except one in particular.
The East Side Gallery – that section of the Berlin wall which was left intact (minus the barbed wire)- displays some paintings by internationally renowned artists such as Thierry Noir and Bodo Sperling. Over the years Berliners have added their own slogans and visual representations to the existing works: art or vandalism? We can ask the question. Some of the weathered and damaged art work has been restored. It’s easy to lose perspective as we admire and take photographs, of why this structure was erected in the first place and what it meant for so many lives. I’m glad I got to see it as it may not be there for much longer.
On day two, after breakfasting on pastries and excellent coffee, we again made our way by U-bahn to Alexanderplatz where we boarded the tour bus for a leisurely two hour ride around the city. The pre-recorded information was helpful and available in 22 languages. Berlin is vast and I had a sense of travelling through several different towns rather than one sprawling metropolis. Much of it is new and we were taken aback by the massive amount of construction which was going on.
Another feature of Berlin, which took some getting used to, was the cycle lane which takes up a section of every pavement. Berliners are very enthusiastic about cycling and it was inspirational to see how so many had embraced this green and healthy mode of transport around a city where journeys can be frustratingly long by car and bus. By day three, after several near misses, I had just about got used to not wandering absent-mindedly into cycle lanes. This positive development didn’t guarantee my safety though, as many two-wheeled pavement users would disregard their allocated strip anyway.
Crossing roads in Berlin also requires nerves of steel: the pedestrian always comes last. When the green man is eventually displayed, a high speed dash is required as it won’t stay green for long and motorists are itching to drive on, hot on the heels of nervous pedestrians, nudging forward whilst the light for them is still showing red. You get used to this and as long as you are resolute and confident and carry on walking rather than giving in to them, they will hold back. It’s not as bad as Paris where motorists disregard traffic lights altogether and don’t even give pedestrians a chance to cross.
Two places I wanted to see were the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, arguably the city’s best known landmarks and synonymous with the ‘iron curtain’ east/west divide. The Brandenburg Gate was built in the 18th century on the land of the Electors of Brandenburg, near to their traditional hunting ground, the Tiergarten. I vividly recall watching those momentous scenes in November 1989 when Berliners from east and west of the city converged on both sides of the wall at the site of Brandenburg Tor (gate). I wanted to see it for myself.
The Pariser Platz – the large open square onto which the Gate opens – is one of the few places in the whole of Berlin with souvenir shops selling the usual ‘I love Berlin’ suspects. This was one of the things I enjoyed most about my visit; the people of the city were charming, helpful and friendly, yet I didn’t feel like I was being offered a pre-packaged tourist experience. I felt like I was being treated like anybody else.
Close to Brandenburg was the aforementioned Tiergarten, a wooded park and former hunting ground of royalty. Happily, no hunting is allowed there today and the animal residents are hopefully safe. The only ones I saw were the dogs taking their owners out for a stroll. I liked the Tiergarten and would have enjoyed spending more time there, but it was almost dusk and I didn’t fancy being there in the dark. I expect it would be a hub for picnickers and sunbathers alike in the summer months, as all city green spaces tend to be, but for me the colours of autumn, the fading light and the nip in the air all conspired to create a beautifully spiritual and slightly other-worldly atmosphere.
Checkpoint Charlie, the American Army border crossing immortalised in cold-war themed books and films has been made into a museum piece. It looks slightly surreal in the middle of what is now a thriving shopping street; a bit like an attraction at a poor theme park. I had not expected this and had thought it would still be in the no man’s land it had occupied during during the Soviet years. Considering it was a place where many lost their lives in brave attempts to defect to the west, I had expected it to have a higher profile and that there would be a bit more reverence shown, but perhaps it is more fitting – and poignant – that life now goes on around it and it serves as a reminder.
Another reminder of lives brutally lost during Germany’s past is the Holocaust memorial in the west of the city near to the Brandenburg Gate. To me, this memorial is inspired and hard-hitting. What could sum up the horror better than a depiction of a cemetery in the middle of the city? Beneath the 2, 711 concrete ‘tombs’ is an information centre.
Towards the end of the afternoon we took time out for one of the most bizarre coffee stops of my life thus far. Following the directions on a placard positioned next to an alley on Pariser Platz, we wandered into this little courtyard, two hungry travellers tempted by the promise of pizza or pasta. We made the mistake of stopping short of the real destination and found ourselves in an establishment whose purpose we were unsure of: ‘Miele’.
I had seen Miele coffee machines on sale in UK department stores and have one of their coffee bean grinders in my kitchen. I didn’t know they made a range of high-end kitchen equipment for the European market (can’t say I’d ever pondered on it……….). The restaurant/café (too small to be the former; too exclusive to be the latter) seemed pretty standard from the outside. There were a few tables out in the pretty little courtyard, but we decided to go inside. That was where it got weird. To one side were a few dining tables, none occupied except one, where a staff meeting was being held. The rest of the floor space was taken up by washing machines and dryers, all in use! Laundry was being loaded, detergents being poured, towels being removed from a dryer and folded. The chrome of the drums glistened as they revolved at high speed and low sound. At first we thought we had wandered into not a real eatery, but part of a white products demonstration set-up. This view was endorsed when we noticed various ovens and counters off to the other side, cooking utensils all being dried and polished and put away. We were eventually attended to by a pleasant young woman who looked a little bemused by our sudden appearance and not a little put-out. The menu was very limited and most things were sold out. This unusual menu offered details as to which of the Miele ovens each dish would be cooked in and other equipment which would be used in its preparation. Service was slow, but we did finally receive our order of rather delicious carrot cake and coffee. The bill was brought after the second request and we had a strong sense that our departure from this surreal tableau was appreciated. The menu didn’t state which Miele dishwasher would be used to clean our crockery…………
I was looking forward to day three and our visit to Bohemian, hip Kreuzberg with its diverse culture and the lure of a Turkish meal. Before reunification this German suburb attracted the bright young things and the not so young idealists and was a hub for alternative cultures. Turkish immigrants later made the area their home and it split off into various zones. A large outdoor Turkish market is held twice a week, unfortunately for us, not on a Thursday. I have to say I was disappointed in Kreuzberg; to be fair we did only stay a couple of hours, so didn’t see all it had to offer, but we were surprised at how run down and littered it was on the few streets we saw (Berlin on the whole is litter free and puts UK cities to shame). Although there were lots of Turkish and other eateries, most seemed to be offering donner kebabs and our veggie nostrils don’t really get along with those goat fat aromas. We found a quiet little place next to a quirky book shop and enjoyed a drink before heading off. Apparently the fresh banana milk shake was delicious! I was boring and opted for a coke.
The Hackescher Hoffe courtyard markets were our next calling point. The area was similar to Covent Garden, but on a much smaller scale and with far less buzz. The little cobbled courtyards were very pretty and home to various artisans, some quite exclusive and expensive.
The rest of the afternoon was taken up by a relaxing cruise on the Spree which presented some great photo opportunities.
The temperature dropped very suddenly during the 90 minute excursion. The blue sky had gone, replaced by an emerging fog. That famous landmark, the Berlin radio tower, appeared quite sinister in the midst of the fog blanket.
We chose not to go inside the beautiful Berlin Cathedral and didn’t visit the numerous museums either, because our city break was short and we wanted to be out there rather than looking at the sort of exhibits which are often found in all big city showcases. If time had permitted we would have spent time on the scenic Museum Island and looked at more of what Berlin had to show us of its past.
I would recommend this brilliant area of the city to anybody planning to visit Berlin.