It is hard to think of any other city that has transformed itself so much within such a short time as Berlin. What in the late 1980’s felt like a dark depressing place burdened by its history, is now a bright, vibrant cosmopolitan city boasting the best and the most daring modern architecture.
There are so many things to see, experience and feel that in the 3 days of our long weekend we were just scratching the surface. We randomly chose and booked a room in a pension in Prenzlauerberg, one of the prettiest neighbourhoods in Berlin. Our pension had no name (it was simply called Pension) and was integrated into an old apartment building. After a bit of a puzzled wait at the locked door we were ushered into the entrance (tiled like a corridor in an old Fassbinder film) and to our room. The building was strange with doors going into mysterious voids leading to other, locked doors. But since we like mysteries and surprises we weren’t complaining. Besides, the place was German-clean and comfortable, breakfast (served in what appeared to be a separate apartment) was the typically great German fare and the bathroom facilities were perfectly modern. After a few weeks spent in The UK, having hot and cold water come out mixed from a single faucet felt like a blessed return to the 21st century.
Although it used to be in East Berlin, Prenzlauerberg is now geographically quite central. The lovely, lively portion of the Pankow district has been going through an amazing face-lift and yet some sense of its varied past remains. Originally a 19th century workers’ slum dominated by five-storey tenement blocks, the area decayed further under the DDR. After reunification it became a magnet for poor students, even poorer artists, self-defined world savers, revolutionaries and a garden variety of bohemian types. These days it is home to young families, professionals, designers, gallery owners, and coffee houses dwellers. The gentrification of the district is on-going; previously neglected grime covered buildings have been revamped, reconstructed, restored and freshly painted in lively colors. The district is now crawling with coffee houses, restaurants, small designer bars, boutique clothing stores and small gardens, while retaining much tranquility. Although pockets of yesteryear radical energy remain, the neighbourhood is now mostly gentrified. While there are only few famous tourist magnets here, it’s a relaxed place and we happily took advantage of the profusion of wonderful bars and restaurants within walking distance from our pension.
Created by the merger of a number of small towns, Berlin is a big city, and yet it is easily navigated. While time consuming, touring the city on foot is very enjoyable and when feet are exhausted a first-rate public transport system is readily available. Moreover, it is always possible to use the Berliner preferred mode of transportation, the bicycle. Berlin has a welcoming bicycle culture, and there are ample bike-rental outlets and well-respected bicycle lanes.
Berlin’s history of physical, ideological and cultural division between east and west, as well as its human heterogeneity have created a diverse culture. The city is made up of twelve distinct districts, each of which has its own individual personality and atmosphere. On a three-days marathon visit such as ours one has to make hard choices as to what to do and what to see. Sitting in cafes, bars and other public spaces in the various districts, and talking with people proved, like in other places in the world, a delightful part of experiencing the beauty of Berlin. Otherwise, our visit included a micro sample of the important historical and modern sites. Although the city is an art lover paradise, time constraints dictated that we spent more time in small galleries and skipped the big museums. We took time to explore Jewish Berlin (see separate article), did no shopping, and ate very well.
Our starting point was Alexanderplatz. This sizeable square, named after Russian emperor Alexander I in honour of his visit to Berlin in 1805, is home to a central transport network of buses and trams, which makes it a convenient place to begin exploring. The general agreement in travel guides is that the center of gravity in Berlin has shifted since unification to the East (to the Mitte district to be precise). It is difficult to imagine that before unification this impressively refurbished and gentrified area consisted essentially of appalling ruins left from the WW bombings, and an array of typically grim DDR buildings. Mitte is now “smack bang in the thick of things” as most “must see” attractions are here.
The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most famous landmark, is located on the district’s eastern border, which used to be the border between East- and West Berlin. Walking along the lovely Unter den Linden Boulevard you cannot miss it. Commissioned by Friedrich Wilhelm in 1791 the gate was designed as an Acropolis-like entrance to the boulevard which led to the royal Prussian palace. When the Berlin Wall was constructed the gate stood for the Cold War and Germany’s division. When the Wall fell it became a symbol of Germany’s unification and Berlin’s emblem.
Going through the Brandenburg Gate you reach the Reichstag, the seat of the German Parliament. It seems to me that no other building epitomizes the history of Germany more potently than the Reichstag. Built at the end of the19th century it was damaged in the fire of 1933 which marked Hitler’s consolidation of power. In the eighties it connoted an almost archetypal ‘monument to evil’ in its oppressive heaviness, darkness and burnt appearance. Its reconstruction (1995 – 99), masterminded by the famed architect Sir Norman Foster, transformed this feeling. The old mezzanine floor was removed and a clear glass dome was added, making it possible to look down into the parliamentary chamber. As we were going up the steel and glass spiralling ramps the vistas and light were changing, evoking a feeling of openness. At the roof the city was spread before us in a panoramic showcase of Berlin’s incredibly varied historical, modern and postmodern architecture. The added glass dome over the plenary hall had initially created much controversy, but I believe it is a key design element conferring a sense of openness and transparency to the new Reichstag, which since April 1999 serves again as the seat of the Bundestag (people Assembly). In my opinion it is a building that fits with united Germany’s new status in Europe; a building that stresses a break with its turbulent history while at the same time bearing it in mind.
Walking just south of the Brandenburg Gate you come upon the ambitious urban renewal site of the Potsdamer Platz . In the 1920’s this square was one of Europe’s busiest and liveliest transport intersections and the area in its vicinity contained many bars, cafés and cinemas. Severely damaged by bombing during WWII it later became the junction of the American, British and Soviet sectors and was completely flattened and bisected with the construction of the Wall in 1961. After the fall of the Wall what was a decaying no-man’s land for 30 years became the biggest construction site in Europe. Showy high-rises were designed by top international architects transforming the square into a hub of corporate culture and offering a unique blend of art, shopping, hotels, restaurants, entertainment and residential spaces. Even though not everyone in Berlin is thrilled about the new Potsdamer, it does seem symbolic of New Berlin and in my opinion is a beautiful, urban space despite its corporate feel. The most striking of the new landmark buildings is the Sony Center designed by the amazingly creative Helmut Jahn. The essence of the glass and steel design is light, and somehow the construction feels luminous, rather than illuminated. The glass facades and roof moderate the natural and artificial light creating a unique quality of transparency and permeability to light, reflection and refraction.
Mitte’s neighbourhood of Tiergarten contains other potential points of interest such as the four-tiered Victory Column, the Bismarck monument and a few other memorials to prominent Prussian generals. On both sides the Unter den Linden is lined with noteworthy historical statues and buildings, such as the Humboldt University, the Berlin Opera, the German Museum of History, a few embassies and the plush Kempinski hotel. This faithfully reconstructed hotel is where royals, heads of state, politicians and other mortal celebrity have been staying since 1907. Last time we checked, the price for a night in the Presidential suite was 12.500 Euro.
The district of Charlottenburg has always been synonymous with West Berlin’s elegance. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall it has lost its top-of-the-line position, yet it still has plenty of charm and chic. The district has a number of famous landmarks, the best known of which is the Schloss Charlottenburg, an elegant palace built in 1695 for Queen Sophie Charlotte. The famous Kurfürstendamm Boulevard is as classy as it ever was and is still home to nice bookshops, restaurants, cafes, bars, older stately buildings and some newcomers. Particularly beautiful is the Neues Kranzler Eck – another example of the tremendous creativity of Helmut Jahn (the Chicago architect of the Sony center).
The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church must be the most famous landmark on Kurfürstendamm. Built in 1891–95 by Kaiser Wilhelm in honour of his grandfather, Emperor William I, the church was bombed and mostly destroyed in a 1943 air attack. The first restoration plans drawn in 1957 envisioned a levelling of the remains and building a completely new construction. When public outrage ensued the project was revised and rather than demolishing the stump of the tower to build a new church, architect Egon Eiermann incorporated the ruined tower of the old Neo-Romanesque church into a new, blue-glazed octagon and a hexagonal imposing tower constructed from concrete, steel and glass. To me the integration of the old ruins with the modern church is not just beautiful but stands as a powerful statement against war.
It seems to surprise many people that the Kreuzberg district with its bohemian fringe reputation, has always belonged to West Berlin. When Berlin was a divided city this multi-cultural immigrant neighbourhood was a magnet for self-proclaimed revolutionaries, anarchists, students and artists. When the Wall fell, Kreuzberg found itself in the geographical centre of Berlin and in 2001 it was merged with the former East Berlin district of Friedrichshain. With time the district began to lose its monopoly on the artsy and the anarchic, but it remains fascinatingly diverse and is staging a recovery. It is emerging as one of the trendiest districts for daytime shopping, cafes and restaurants and for a hopping nightlife with many bars, pubs and nightclubs.
The remaining part of the Wall between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain is the longest section of the Berlin wall still standing. Immediately after unification over 100 international artists used this 1.3 km long section of the wall as canvas and their artwork is known as the East Side Gallery. This euphoric artistic memorial to hope and freedom is possibly the largest and longest-lasting open air gallery in the world. However, being subject to the effects of weather, time, air pollution and vandalism some of the paintings are sadly fading and suffering decay. Recently, the paintings were placed under heritage protection, and restoration work is underway. Another memorial connected to the Cold War in Kreuzberg is Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing point for diplomats and spies between East Berlin and West Berlin during the infamous years of division. While it was meant to be made to look like the original checkpoint, the reconstruction appears to have gone wrong. With a tasteless replica of the US army guardhouse, and a glut of touristic “memorabilia” around, it feel disrespectful. This sense of being in a typical tourist trap is only marginally redeemed by the open-air photographic exhibit depicting the real history of the place.