Ich Bin ein Berliner

 

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN GAFENCU MAGAZINE, APRIL 2015

A city at the epicentre of 20th century history, Berlin does not easily surrender its secrets…  

The “useful phrases” section of most guidebooks to Berlin are sadly lacking when it comes to equipping a newcomer to the city who asks that most pressing question of all: “What’s with all the pink pipes?” Everywhere you go in the city, there are huge pipes snaking above street level, serving no apparent purpose. An art installation symbolising reunification, perhaps? Or maybe a temporary engineering project? Neither. The answer says more about the city than any travel guide could.

Berlin literally means “Swamp City,” and is built on a region of low marshy ground along the River Spree. Its water table is just 2.5 metres below ground level. Guaranteeing residents wet cellars and basements, it also ensures a dearth of high-rise buildings compared to most other world cities.

That 40-miles worth of meandering pipework, then, is serving a real purpose – sucking the water from underground and pumping it across the city to a designated canal. All those crazy twists and turns in the construction? They’re there to stop the water freezing in winter. It’s pragmatic. It’s green. It’s simple. And the locals don’t care what you think about it.

Welcome to Berlin. Welcome to Germany.

Despite being one of Europe’s youngest capitals, Berlin is the very encapsulation of 20th century history. It’s a burden the city doesn’t always bear easily. If this urban sprawl were a person, it’d be recommended some sessions with a shrink. Your head, too, will spin as you visit the city for the first time.

A trip to Berlin is akin to an archaeological dig, regardless of the fact its foundations only go down a few metres. Everywhere you go – everything you do – exposes a rich and portentous story. Brandenburg, Prussia, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, World War II, The Cold War, Reunification, the German Republic… It’s a dizzying, thought-provoking and mind-blowing trip. It happened here. And that’s what makes a visit to Berlin whatever you want it to be. You can just go for the wild nightlife. Or you can immerse yourself in the history and take it all in on a cultural level. Or you can shop until you drop. Whichever Berlin you’re seeking, you’ll find it.

Basil Fawlty’s line – “Don’t mention the war!” – is likely still on the lips of a few politically-incorrect stag-dos arriving at Schonefeld Airport but, in recent years, Germany has grasped the nettle when coming to terms with its own Nazi past. Post-war denial and shame has given way to talk about its own history.

Over the past 10 years, Berlin’s most startling examples of this have been the Holocaust Denkmal – in typical prosaic German – “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” – and the Topography of Terror museum, an institution dedicated to telling the chilling story of the Gestapo and the SS, Hitler’s primary instruments of repression.

Visitors intent on exploring this era should take in the stunning Daniel Libeskind-designed Jewish Museum. Exhibits are far from solely dedicated to the 1930s and ’40s, and cover two millennia of German-Jewish history. Overall, though, it’s the architect’s radical use of space, surface and even temperature that helps tell such an untellable story.

It’s a bit of a shame, then, that Berlin’s planners didn’t employ Libeskind to design more of the city. In architectural terms, at least, it’s hard to think of a less appealing metropolis. While carpet-bombing clearly laid waste to the city 70 years ago, the Soviet block-building style of the east and a reluctance to develop in the west (prior to 1989’s reunification) makes for a curious and grim landscape.

Simply put, 25 years has not been enough to play construction catch up. Too much of what has been designed and built – the unloved Sony Centre in Potsdamer Platz being a prime example – is distinctly underwhelming and far from restorative. The one exception to this architectural mundanity is the reconstruction of the Reichstag by celebrated British architect Norman Foster. It houses the Bundestag (German parliament), and queuing to access the glass dome is highly recommended (but you’ll need your passport – it is the active seat of government after all).

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Ironically, in the 1930s and ’40s Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect of choice, had far-reaching plans to transform Berlin into Welthaupstadt Germania – the world capital of the Third Reich. The scale of his ambitions was breathtaking and included blueprints for the Volkshalle, a huge domed building that could accommodate a crowd of 180,000, as well as a triumphal arch that was so big it would comfortably frame the Parisian one. Whether, given Berlin’s quaggy substrate, either of these would have proved viable was never put to the test.

Back, though, to the sloppy, unaesthetic and utilitarian architecture: Die Berliner Mauer. The Berlin Wall. The epicentre of the Cold War and the physical and symbolic embodiment of national schizophrenia. No trip to Berlin is complete without trying to comprehend the magnitude, in every sense, of this hastily thrown together barricade. Overnight, streets were bisected, U-Bahn lines cut and families separated. The East Germans called it Antifaschistischer Schutzwall – the Anti-fascist Protective Rampart – and, as with many walls, it was hard to tell who it was keeping in and who was being kept out. Today, little of the original wall remains. It was jubilantly torn down just as quickly as it was erected. Tracing the 27-mile line that separated East and West Berlin, though, is a fascinating exercise. It’s a zigzag pattern unconsciously matched by the more contemporary Berlin pipes and Libeskind’s museum.

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So where to see the Wall? Forget Checkpoint Charlie – there’s nothing there of note except opportunistic tourist fleecers. Head instead to the East Side Gallery, with its one-mile intact stretch of wall. Here panels display the work of 118 graffiti artists, including My God, Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love, an iconic painting showing the Russian and East German premiers of the time, Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, kissing. There is also the famous depiction of a Trabant – once East Germany’s most iconic (and much maligned) car – crashing through The Wall. Be warned though, that graffitists are seldom respecters of the surfaces they adorn. As a result, much of the more historic graffiti art is now suffering from more contemporary embellishments.

Berlin, though, is a great city for walking, making appropriate footwear and a map a necessity. You’ll often find yourself wondering as you wander – was this East or West Berlin pre-unification?

Architecture-wise, representing the East there’s Fernsehturm (Berlin TV Tower) in Alexanderplatz, the leafy grand avenue of Unter Den Linden, the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt Square, and the city’s imposing Cathedral, Berliner Dom. Representing the West, we have the Brandenburg Gate, the Siegessaule Victory Column, the Tiergarten Park, and the government’s HQ, the Reichstag.

Today it may not matter which side of the divide these landmarks fall, but it counted between 1945 and 1989. Apparently, the traffic lights help you orientate, with those sited in former East Berlin featuring an old-fashioned gentleman wearing a Fedora hat.

Aside from risking getting run over checking out the lights, you may also want to take advantage of one of the numerous walking tours on offer. There’s a choice of listening to experts relating the Last Days of the Third Reich, The Cold War Saga or getting bowled over by the unique insights on offer courtesy of the Christopher Isherwood Berlin tour (the Academy Award winning musical movie Cabaret was based on the author’s Berlin-based novels).

In a city full of museums, Berlin conveniently situates five of them in one location – the prosaically named Museum Island. The Altes, Alte Nationalgalerie, Neues, Pergamonmusuem and Bode museums have all been restored since reunification and now contain an amazing array of exhibits, running from prehistory to the Impressionist period. A guide as to just what each one of them houses – as well as a multi-entry museum pass – is strongly advised.

In the case of the Pergamonmusuem, its most striking aspect is the sheer scale of its exhibits. The Roman market gate of Milet and The Ishtar Gate, for instance, were both transported brick by brick from Anatolia and Babylon respectively. The British Museum’s Elgin Marbles look shed-like by comparison. The biggest attraction of all – the world famous Pergamon Altar – dwarfs the lot of them put together. It is, however, currently undergoing renovation and won’t be on show to the public again until 2019.

Away from museumville and Berlin is certainly a city of distinctive neighbourhoods, each representing a facet of cultural and historic life. Kreuzberg, once one of the poorest and most dilapidated areas in West Berlin, is now one of the city’s trendiest spots, complete with an art community, cafés, bars and nightclubs. It’s a bit like Notting Hill in the 1970s, then one of London’s most happening quarters. If it’s wild nightlife you’re after, this is where you should head off to first. Don’t get there too early, mind you. Things only really get going around 1am. Another stop for most tourists is Mitte – quite literally “the middle” – which provides a jumping off point for sightseeing, leisure and shopping. Mitte also boasts a handy surfeit of hotels and restaurants, so you won’t have too far to stagger. After tucking into German-sized portions of comfort food, you’ll be glad.

Definitely try the Weiner Schnitzel in Borchardt on Franzosische Strasse or the Himmel und Erde (black pudding, onions, mashed potatoes, and apple sauce) at Lutter & Wenger on Charlottenstrasse. Both restaurants are authentic, retro-Berlin institutions that certainly won’t disappoint.

Unless your constitution is conditioned to street food, skip the numerous Currywurst stalls on every street corner. It’s claimed 70 million of these Bratwurst sausages, slathered in curry ketchup, are sold in Berlin each year. It’s not recorded, however, how many are actually eaten. Still, it’s a fair bet you’ll try one – it’s on most Berlin tourists’ “to-do” lists. At least, it is on their first trip.

In truth, you can spend days in Berlin and not run out of things to do or see. And that’s before you even think of venturing out of the centre to the Wannsee lakeside and Havel shores, the historic Berlin Zoo, or Charlottenburg Palace. In the summer, just taking a boat down the Spree to see the city from a different perspective could easily fill a relaxingly lazy day. The choice, as they say, is yours.

In the end, how you find Berlin will very much depend on which era you’re actually planning to uncover. Whatever your preference, you’ll unearth enough history and culture to fill the Pergamonmuseum twice over. Get a trip in the pipeline.