Adrian Bridge, The Daily Telegraph, November 1, 2014
I am like a child in a sweet shop when I return to Berlin . So many places to revisit; so many memories to rekindle; so many changes to take stock of; so many lives (and loves) of others to re-engage with.
But where to start? There are many journeys through Berlin . There is the historical one leading from the 12th-century town of Cölln built on a swamp which became the capital of Prussia and then of the Germany of the Kaisers, the Weimar Republic and, finally, fatally, the Third Reich – a journey leading to the brutal division that turned Berlin into the city straddling East and West, the ultimate hot spot of a nerve-jangling Cold War .
There is the geographical journey: from the sparky, happening, hard-edged districts of the east to the silkier, smoother, more leisured-class watering holes of the west. There is the Berlin of great culture, of grand opera houses and masterful orchestral manoeuvres; the Berlin of artistic genius and the treasures of antiquity captured in the bust of a still fresh-faced Queen Nefertiti.
There is the Berlin of a thousand nightclubs and myriad alcohol and drug-fuelled voyages of self-discovery into the dawn; the Berlin of cutting-edge fashion; of grand monuments and sweeping boulevards and fur-coated (frequently Russian) ladies. There’s the Berlin of officialdom and the comfortingly orderly governance of the nation’s “Mutti” Angela Merkel (counterpoised exquisitely by the Berlin of cheek-pierced revolutionary anarchy).
There is the Berlin of expansive parks and boat-filled lakes and beer gardens, the Berlin of allotments and Kaffee und Kuchen and red sunsets over the River Spree. There is the Berlin that has drawn many of the most creative young spirits on the continent who come to paint, to sculpt, to design, to innovate, rather as David Bowie did before them; there is the Berlin of the permanent buzz; there is, too, the Berlin of the never-ending Baustelle (building site), the Berlin of the inexplicable dither over the opening of a new airport; there is the Berlin of the fixed scowl (oh yes, they’re a surly lot, the Berliners, but in a bizarre way that is part of the charm).
There is also, of course, the Berlin of November 9 1989, that glorious day 25 years ago this month when the world held its breath – and the Berlin Wall was breached. That’s the one I remember best of all.
Berlin covers a vast area, but with less than half the population of London feels much more spacious. It has a great U-Bahn and S-Bahn network (when the drivers are not on strike, as they were on the day I landed). You can navigate its rivers and canals by boat. Many choose to explore the city by bike (cycle lanes are wide). You can soar above it in a balloon. You can come back down to earth by taking a tour in a Trabi – East Germany’s singular contribution to the history of the automobile.
Or you can walk. I choose to travel by foot, starting from the centre of the old East Berlin, the Alexanderplatz, and ending at the centre of the old West Berlin, the bright lights of the Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm) boulevard. As the crow flies, it’s not a long way (about nine kilometres) but it does take you through the very core of the city. I wanted to walk not only because often you get to see more that way, but because I wanted to follow in the footsteps of those incredibly brave souls who 25 years ago this autumn took to the streets to declare “Wir sind das Volk” (We are the People) – and who brought down that wall.
East meets West (Manuela and Dirk)
Before setting off there is some catching up to do with family. My wife’s father was born in the eastern part of Berlin but, sensing something was up, he slipped across to the western part of the city just months before the construction in August 1961 of the “anti-fascist protection barrier”. His brother, Günther, stayed behind and on our first day we reminisce with him and his wife Marianne about the drama of those heady days in November 1989. Their daughter, Manuela, then in her early 20s, was one of the many East Germans who, never suspecting the wall was about to open, had earlier that summer escaped to the West via Hungary. As she recalls her fear and excitement and the sheer relief at getting out, she squeezes the hand of Dirk, the man with whom she shares a home in the south-western district of Marienfelde. He is originally from West Berlin; she is from the East, but the distinction now seems meaningless.
There is really only one word that sums up the Alexanderplatz and that is “ugly”. It was ugly when I first visited the city in the Eighties and it is even uglier now. Originally the site of a cattle market, much of this once-racy part of town (immortalised in Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz) was destroyed in the war, and what you see today is the legacy of the architects who wanted to make it a showcase for the benefits of socialism in the German Democratic Republic. The square is surrounded by drab blocks of concrete which may once have expressed some sort of modernity but which now have an unpleasant, jarring effect, not helped by the addition of neon signs pointing to the pleasures of Dunkin’ Donuts, the Primark clothes store and Shoe City. There is a forlorn air about the “Fountain of Friendship between Peoples”, once a popular place to sit and chat (sotto voce); today a small crowd is watching a mime artist at play beneath the huge World Clock at which, rather cruelly, East Germans could see what time it was in countries they would never be able to visit.
The dominant feature of the Alex is the Fernsehturm, a vast television tower that has a decidedly Big Brother feel. From its 203m-high viewing platform, most parts of the city, east and west, can certainly be observed – and it is now a popular spot for tourists (tip: book online or in person). The Fernsehturm in turn can be seen from many parts of the city – but whereas it was once looked upon as the symbol of a deeply despised state, I get the impression that it has been taken into the hearts of Berliners across the former divide. It is a familiar, defining sight; it is almost lovable.
And on into the square itself and on the left, the Rotes Rathaus (town hall), seat of Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who, talking about the post-wall Berlin, coined the legendary phrase “We are poor, but sexy”; on the right, the Marx-Engels-Forum, a small park containing the statues of the founding fathers of communism (someone has rather touchingly placed a red rose in Karl’s lap). They are no doubt looking on in bewilderment (and despair) at the latest building project in the square, the reconstruction of the old palace of the kaisers.
Unter den Linden (Under the Lime Trees)
As rain clouds gather we take refuge in the DDR Museum, which aims to give a sense of life as it was lived in East Germany. There are films of cheering crowds saluting the May Day parades, a re-creation of a typical East German living room and photos of collective potty-training practices in the kindergarten. A whole section (rather more pleasing on the eye) is devoted to the East German love of the Freikörperkultur (FKK, or nude sunbathing). And there is a life-size model of a Trabant in which visitors can sit at the driving wheel – and go on a simulated drive through East Berlin. I have a powerful flashback to November 1989 and the BMW showroom on the Ku’damm in which incredulous East Germans were allowed to sit in shiny, high-octane sports cars – and to feel that at last they were living the Teutonic dream. It made great colour copy for a fledgling foreign reporter.
There are other, big-hitting sights in this part of the city: the Berliner Dom (cathedral), Kaiser Wilhelm II’s characteristically bombastic (but genuinely fascinating) paean to Protestantism; the German Historical Museum – much changed from GDR times and a place that pulls no punches in the displays covering the darker sides of the country’s past. There are the world-class museums and galleries of Museum Island (the Pergamon Museum for the Ishtar Gate from Babylon and the Pergamon Altar from Turkey; the Neues Museum for Queen Nefertiti).
We take in as much as we can but lunch and an old friend beckon as we race down Unter den Linden, always Berlin’s showcase street, past the city’s main opera house, the Humboldt University, the statue of Fritz the Great (he’s still there) and the beautiful Rocco Forte Hotel de Rome in the Bebel Platz (scene once of the infamous burning of books).
“So is Berlin now one?” I ask Andrea at the Westin Grand Hotel over a welcoming, warming, seasonal bowl of Pfifferlinge (mushroom) soup. “Not quite – people of our generation in the west still talk about 'over there’ and you can always tell whether someone is from the east from their expressions.”
On Andrea’s recommendation we detour down the Friedrichstrasse towards the S-Bahn station that was the former crossing point from east to west – the “Palace of Tears” where loved ones had to part. Today, close by is the rather swanky Galeries Lafayette. Berlin is getting cold and I need a new scarf; the walk can wait.
East meets West (Christian and Carl)
That evening, in the laid-back setting of Das Lokal in Berlin Mitte we eat contemporary German cuisine with Christian and Carl, two men with a passion for cycling and who have toured together. Christian is the main press officer for Berlin Tourism and although not from the city (he grew up in West Germany), he has developed a great love for it. Carl, a journalist, was working for the East German news agency ADN on the night the wall opened and tells a hilarious story of how, as the scale of what was happening became clear, he had to put in repeated phone calls to his boss to ask for permission to report on it (in the end he was allowed six very guarded sentences).
Aided by a deliciously mellow South Tyrolean red, the stories flow and both men wax lyrical about some of their favourite Berlin places: Christian raves about the creative energies that have been unleashed at the former Tempelhof Airport (three days later I join kitesurfers and skaters as I cycle down its runway) and the area around the former Anhalter Bahnhof that is “Berlin’s equivalent to the High Line in New York”. Carl enthuses about the pleasures awaiting visitors to the former industrial zones of Oberschöneweide in the east. Just when I think the evening is winding down, Christian orders another bottle of red…
The Brandenburg Gate
In November 1989, it was the images of people dancing on the wall at the Brandenburg Gate that, more than anything else, made it clear that the world we had all grown up with had changed irrevocably.
We get to the Gate as night is falling (the day has been a rain-swept one, spent mostly in museums and cafés); it has been spruced up ahead of the illuminated balloon-filled celebrations planned for next Sunday to mark the 25th anniversary and it’s gleaming beautifully. There are protesters calling on the Americans (their embassy is right next to the Gate) to “stop the torture” in Iraq. Remembering the watchtowers and the barbed wire and the piercing bright lights of the “death strip”, I still do a double-take when I see people waving placards and shouting at this spot.
Tourists milling around the surrounding bank and embassy-filled Pariser Platz go into selfie overdrive. It is now clear, but chilly as we slip into the splendidly restored Hotel Adlon and, to celebrate reaching the halfway point of our walk, order champagne cocktails. Marlene Dietrich would have approved.
Breakfast in Berlin
Another day, another late Berlin breakfast, this one in the Strandbad Mitte, close to where we dined with Christian and Carl. Marie, the daughter of very dear East German friends, wasn’t even born when the wall came down, arriving some six months later. She is studying medicine at the city’s leading Charité Hospital and is planning to work as a gynaecologist. Surely people of her age don’t talk about east and west anymore? “Well, we do still talk about 'over there’ – but it’s meant ironically,” she says with a winning smile. “Of course I have friends from both sides – I just prefer it in the east!”
We linger over breakfast (Berliners seem less anxious about time) and talk about Marie’s recent travels – to Vietnam, China, Bali. We drink more coffee and discover that we share a love of travelling by night train.
Rabbits and red squirrels in the Tiergarten
It still feels strange to walk through the Brandenburg Gate but, of course, it is quite straightforward now. We are in the west within seconds and before us lies the Tiergarten, the beautiful green lungs of central Berlin, enhanced by the red, orange and yellow hues of autumn.
There are some fairly key sights on this side too: immediately to the left, the maze of concrete slabs in different shapes and sizes that is the much-delayed Holocaust Memorial (I like it, but critics object to the fact that some people use it as an area of recreation); to the right the Reichstag, that once forbidding symbol of the German state that, with a flash of Norman Foster brilliance, was given a glass dome and a new identity.
Heading up the Strasse des 17 Juni (the date of the failed 1953 East German uprising), we pass a memorial to the Soviet liberators of Berlin in 1945 (Russian schoolchildren climb gleefully all over the model tank), and then climb up the Siegessäule, the column that commemorates Prussian victories in the 19th-century wars against Denmark, Austria and France. Like the Brandenburg Gate, the lady in gold at the top shines brightly, still winking at Wim Wenders who chose this spot as the place for angels to gather in his 1987 classic Wings of Desire.
We walk on through the Tiergarten. The rain has given it a welcome freshness; we breathe in deeply, enjoying the peace and the stillness. In the bushes we spot rabbits and red squirrels; further afield, a young mother with her toddler. I squeeze my wife’s hand; many moons ago when we lived here we used to walk in the Tiergarten with our own two Berliner babies.
The Ku’damm and the 'goldenen westen’
On that famous night in November 1989 – and indeed during the days thereafter – most of East Berlin came to marvel at the Ku’damm, a 3.5km-long boulevard that, with its upmarket shops and landmark hotels and coffee houses, is considered Berlin’s answer to the Champs-Elysées.
In the years following the fall of the wall the area went into something of a decline as interest, money and all the trendy young things flocked to the eastern districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg.
Of late there has been something of a revival. New developments close to the once decidedly seedy area around the Bahnhof Zoo include the super-luxurious Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the revamped Zoo Palast cinema, the imaginatively designed Bikini-Haus and, in the 25 Hours Hotel, a bar and restaurant affording great views of, on the one side, the newly refurbished Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis-Kirche (the bombed-out church that serves as a constant reminder of the dark years) and, on the other, the Tiergarten.
The Ku’damm is what it always was: a busy, attractive boulevard teeming with shoppers and a showcase for all that glitters (that BMW showroom is still there). We stroll along it and remember when it was packed 15 to 20 people deep with Berliners from both sides, pinching themselves as they stepped into the history books.
In the end, with all the diversions along the way, our walk from the heart of the East to the heart of the West took five days. It could have been shorter (the journey by S-Bahn takes 14 minutes); it could have been longer (the same journey took the East Germans 28 years). But it afforded a timely opportunity to reconnect with this city. I had forgotten just how – for all its faults and the abruptness of its people – exhilarating Berlin is, and vow inwardly to return soon.
At a news stand I spot the cover of the latest issue of Stern magazine proclaiming that, 25 years after the fall of the Wall, Berlin is “the coolest capital city in the world”.
That’s quite a claim. But I would be hard pressed to think of any other city more deserving of the title.
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This article was written by Adrian Bridge from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.