(Caution: Long Post – if you’re staying, thanks for reading……….Al)
Fi works hard and I’m always encouraging her to treat herself (even though she’s just had a birthday) but I confess my surprise when she wandered off in the airport and came back with a new pair of Ray Bans. She routinely breaks or loses pens and sunglasses so such treats are almost always fraught with disaster. This did mean, however, that we needed to recoup a few funds for the rest of our trip. There was to be no taxi to the hotel in Berlin – we were to throw ourselves onto the mercy of the U-Bahn, Berlin’s underground railway.
But every good plan needs a hiccup to make it worthwhile. Picture this, it’s sub-zero, it’s dark and getting later, our U-Bahn map is the size of a matchbox, the print thus minute – and every station name has at least a dozen letters. We lean against flickering lights, magazine ads, anything that will help us peer at the tiny print. An hour and half later the U-Bahn spits us out onto a dark, silent Berlin city street. We trudge towards the light – blinking like sewer rats. But lo, what is this – lights, bright and shiny – our hotel !!! Damn Ray Bans !!! It had taken us almost 2 hours to get from the airport to the hotel – a trip the guide book described as a short 25 minutes by car. Warming up, stein of beer, let the adventure begin.
Much of Berlin, as you will appreciate, is a flourishing modern city and frankly, given the homogenisation of modern cities today, could look like any other. But, of course, Berlin has a unique 20th century history, and it is for this that any visitor to Berlin will go in search. Wandering around the city on our first morning I described its architecture as “angular”.
The atmosphere was bustling with tourists – much the same as any major city, except that the temperature was about -2 and we stumbled upon a rock band busking, full volume, near the Potsdam Platz intersection. That’s HARD rock !
We set out with a broad plan but we always do as much as possible on foot. It’s the only way. If you’re going to see the Brandenburg Gate and The Reichstag – walk there is our advice – or hire a bike. Berlin is flat. Bus tours are fine if the bones are creaky but you don’t get the feel of a city on a tour bus.
Berlin creates the feeling of space. There are numerous parks, though all brown at this time of year – the roads are several lanes wide – and even high-rise blocks don’t seem to pin you in.
(A tip if going to Berlin is to buy the Berlin “Welcome” Card at the airport upon arrival. It gives you free access to the U-Bahn, public transport and discount off museum charges and other outlets. Incredibly flexible, it made touring the city a breeze.)
Our first gallery was the Neue Nationalgalerie on Potsdamer Strasse. The building, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is described in flowing terms, but above ground it looks like a railway terminal (sorry, Ludwig, I know, it was a time).
The excellent collection, however, is housed underground and well worth a visit (includes Grosz, Kirchner,Beckman,Breur,Nolde). The most striking perspective is on the mid-20th century, for obvious reasons. Eastern European art that addresses 20th century history is not meant to make you smile – it is forceful and reflective. Not to be shirked.
A word here about the Holocaust Memorial. When art really communicates its power is felt in your soul. This monument to the millions of Jews who died as Hitler pursued his mania is subtle, powerful and dark. Rows and rows of grey concrete blocks, all sizes, some straight, many leaning, in serried ranks, and as you walk through them you slowly descend into the centre, almost imperceptibly, until you realise that the blocks around you are huge and the daylight is becoming distant above you – suddenly you are a small witness surrounded by huge, grey blocks of silence. I was completely blown away by its simplicity and power.
We caught a bus into the eastern side of the city to root out lunch. This, however, proved to be a disappointment in that we couldn’t find a German restaurant open for lunch. There were Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese, Egyptian, Mc and Mac, Starbucks and Costa – nein bierkelleren !
Fi indulged my desire to visit the Bauhaus Archive. (www.bauhaus.de) The Bauhaus Collective influenced me greatly when I was studying art in the 70’s and to visit the archive was something of a homecoming for a devoted fan. The teachers at the Bauhaus included Klee, Kandinsky, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. A truly revolutionary group.
And so to KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens). Berlin’s Harrods – Harvey Nichols – Bloomingdales – whatever. A monster department store and admittedly, for a non-shopper, fun to poke around in. Keeping my wallet and my euros firmly in my pocket I splashed out on a packet of Orange Oolong (I love my fancy teas) and we headed for the bar restaurant at the top of the building for a much needed Weissbier and sit.
The entrance to the Hobby store of KaDeWe has a stunning colourful neon display above the door. Multi-coloured liquorice drops seem to be dripping from the darkness above. Imagine our delight to emerge to find a shiny black car parked right outside. We fought for the camera.
Weary legs and dinner at a Bavarian Bierkeller-alike which was packed with Berliners dining heartily on a meat-based dish of your choice. This is Germany – eat meat, get over it. The restaurant hugged a corner of the Gendarmenmarkt, a beautiful city square in the heart of Berlin.
(Tip: if in Berlin this square is home to several great restaurant choices though some look mighty pricey.)
Sunday and another walking day and a foray to the heart of old east Berlin and to the East Side Gallery, the Turkish area and the Jewish Quarter via Checkpoint Charlie.
Permanently posted onto boards at the corner near Checkpoint Charlie is the story of how Berlin came to be split. It is a tale of Allied arrogance and Super Power ignorance and is a cautionary tale for us all.
The Turkish area is in old east Berlin, raggedy around the edges perhaps but studded with fascinating buildings of a time and place and worth a good walk around.
This is the area that will lead you to the East Side Gallery.
The Jewish quarter too oozes, what we can now look back on, as faded charm.
Sunday lunch, our last full meal before a late flight home, was taken in a Stav pub, which we stumbled upon near Museum Island and situated right by the river. I had never been to a pub like this before – a pub that was a political history lesson…..and it was packed……
……….History, idea, concept and name of the « Ständige Vertretung » (short : StäV) are closely related to recent German history. The West-German Federal Republic and the East German Democratic Republic didn´t have regular embassies but ”steady representations” (German: Ständige Vertretung) in Bonn and East-Berlin. As the wall came down there was a bitter fight between the old and new capital. Bonn lost. Aproximately 50.000 people from the Rhineland moved to Berlin in 1998. 40 years of Bonn were history. This thrilling time is shown at the ”StäV”. The French newsagency AFP titeled: ”The ”StäV” ist not an ordinary pub, but a political storybook”. The memory of the past comes alive………
(from the Stav brochure)
Berlin meatballs and Wurst.
I was left with the clear impression that politics matters in Berlin, for obvious reasons perhaps. The political history of the city is all around you. As a Berliner you cannot ignore it. We should be grateful to those brave people, who on 9th November 1989, took up the offer made by East German official Gunter Schabowski;
“Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR (East Germany) into the FRG (West Germany) or West Berlin.”
They wouldn’t wait, they amassed as one, and the Wall came down.
Berlin is a wonderful city for that.