From London where I live it would be possible in just 90 minutes to visit a large section of the south coast or Kent, go by train to Bath, drive to Windsor Castle or fly to Berlin. No brainer really, Berlin is the happening city in Europe right now.
The ride from the airport is quick and after an underground station or two I left the train at Alexander Platz station. Emerging into a grey day, not quite having my bearings I looked up and at once knew where I was. The enormous 666ft television tower loomed above me like a futuristic building from the Jetsons. I was in what was once East Berlin. How things have changed.
My last visit to Berlin was in 1990, the year after the wall came down and the week the currency was united. It was a city of black and white in the East and colour in the West. With just a year gone after liberation there were still sections of the wall throughout the city but the Brandenburg Gate was wide open to walk through (or cycle in my case) something that hadn’t been possible since 13th August 1961. The day before , the GDR Council of Ministers announced that “in order to put a stop to the hostile activity of West Germany’s and West Berlin’s revanchist and militaristic forces, border controls of the kind generally found in every sovereign state will be set up at the border of the German Democratic Republic, including the border to the western sectors of Greater Berlin.” And that was that, what they failed to mention was the restriction this would impose on their own GDR people, they would not be allowed to cross the border for another 28 years.
Even on that grey afternoon colour was clearly apparent through the drizzle. I boarded the 200 bus to the Tiergarten and a short while later I checked into my suite at the Maritim Hotel right in the centre of town. And next to a significant historical site, as I was to find out later. The hotel has 505 rooms and can meet the needs most visitors with a pool on the 5th floor and there’s a spa too. The lobby is full of marble and swish with a cosy bar and restaurant on hand.
The first evening I spent a few hours in the charming company of Alexander Brinda, one of the executive managers. We ate in the brasserie style ‘M’ restaurant that has recently had a make over. Enjoyed traditional Berlin fare of currywurst, meat patties, Scotch egg and plenty of olive bread with truffle butter. The apple pork with braised onion apples was particularly good. A splendid apple cheesecake followed. Apples were strong on the menu!
Alexander knows the city well despite living in New York for 17 years where as well as picking up an American accent he also acquired a wife. They now have children and have found Berlin a brilliant city for families to enjoy. We spent the evening chatting about this cosmopolitan metropolis and how it has become such an international star in recent years. “The food here is terrific” Alexander says as my glass is seamlessly topped up throughout our dinner. The M restaurant runs like a well-oiled ‘German’ engine. Almost silent but delivering the goods with quality and speed.
Traditional food has been updated as I found out when I ate at Mesa, the cool, simple dining restaurant at the Regency Hyatt, a mix and match of small and large plates eatery. The updated classics like Bavarian meat loaf with cabbage and smoked salmon with rosti and mustard dressing was clean, sharp and very tasty. This is where Berlin starts to shine, the price, only €15 for three dishes or €19 for four.
Walking around Potsdamer Platz after lunch I called into the expertly curated Topography of Terror Museum. As you would expect the history of Nazi occupation of Berlin between 1933 – 1945 is comprehensive but with many human touches. Photos of victims are named where known and their stories told. Outside the one of the last remaining sections of the Berlin wall has been preserved. It divided the city not only physically but mentally as well.
Once the wall was complete families were separated and split, often in political ideology. Many tried to flee and paid the ultimate price. Checkpoint Charlie is famous as one of the crossing points between East and West. The museum there offers a compelling account of the cold war years and failed and successful escape attempts.
To the west of the Tiergarden the vast park that acts as a green lung for 3.4 million residents you will find Charlottenburg. Recently revived with a resurgence of consumer verve new buildings are everywhere and one of the city’s newest hip places to shop and eat, The Bikini Shopping Centre. Full of pop-up shops and designer names it is currently the place to see and be seen.
I checked out the latest drinking hole in the area, The Monkey Bar on the 10th floor of the uber trendy 25 Hour Hotel. It’s a cool multigenerational hang out and aptly named as it looks out over the monkey enclosure of the Berlin Zoo. On my mid afternoon visit many families were perched looking through the wall of glass down at the monkeys and across the lush green of the Tiergarten and beyond. It has something of the feel of Central Park in New York.
The comparison to New York is an apt one, Berlin has become a melting pot of cultures and nationalities and in recent years there has been an explosion in quality food at democratic prices. The city has discovered an appetite for multicultural eating in a big way with many Asian and ‘modern’ German restaurants opening in recent years to much acclaim.
Volt, a modern stylish restaurant has interiors like the Tate Modern in London. No surprise really as it was also a sub power station in a previous life. The food is elegant, thoughtful and very tasty. The menu changes every three or four weeks so it is constantly fresh and challenging.
Now here’s a spoiler alert for fans of Homeland. As I wandered back to my hotel I noticed there were trucks and many people outside. I entered the lobby and was told to be quiet on set! I whispered to one of the crew “what are you filming” she replied, “It’s a big show and it starts with H”. I paused for a moment and realised she meant Homeland the award winning American political thriller TV series starring Claire Daines.
Just as I processed this information she walked through the lobby and acted out here scene (she was on form is all I am allowed to say at this stage). During a break in filming I had a chat with her and the director. They were tight lipped about plot lines but I can at least confirm that some of the next season is filmed in The Maritim Hotel in Berlin!
Walking a city is always a good idea so I signed up for a couple of tours with Insider Tours. These multilingual walks take about 3-4 hours and are superb. If you ever feel you missed out on history at school this is the way to catch up. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and engaging.
I went for ‘Cold War Berlin’ and ‘Third Reich Berlin’ both fascinating and full of incites and anecdotes that bring history alive. You can cover a lot of ground in a few hours so with a good map and fair weather you will discover what a diverse and interesting city Berlin is. If you are not so keen on war history they offer Famous Sights and Berlin Today walks as well many others.
Throughout the day I got the full lowdown on the Berlin Wall and the famous airlift of 1948. In June of that year the Russians imposed a series of economic sanctions that involved stopping all transport in or out of the city, ceased supplying non Soviet citizens of food or fuel and started ‘threatening’ military exercises around Berlin. In short the city was under siege. With only 36 days of food and 45 days of coal drastic action was needed. The facts were daunting, over 1500 tons of food and 3450 tons of coal and gasoline would be needed daily to keep the city alive.
Operation Vittles started on 28th June and at its height over 1500 flights a day were coming into Berlin with essential supplies. One of the pilots, Gail Havorsen was talking with some children on the runway before flying out and he gave them some chewing gum. They asked if they could have some more and he said he would drop some on his next flight. They asked how they would recognise him and he replied, “I’ll wiggle my wings”. The next day on his approach he rocked his plane and dropped chocolate bars with handkerchiefs as parachutes. Letters started to pour in addressed to ‘Uncle Wiggly wings’, ‘Uncle chocolate’ and the ‘Chocolate flier’. His immediate superior officer was not impressed but when the top brass got wind of it they realised the positive publicity to be gained from it.
The siege lasted over a year but in the end the Russians realised their attempts to starve Berlin so they could occupy it were useless. Over 2.3 million tons of aid was flown in by the British and USA air forces in cargo planes.
During the walks I visited the site where Hitler’s bunker was, the Reichstag building and the square of the burning books. A memorial sited there really says it all. A large glass plate in the ground reveals (underground) a large room of white shelves with nothing on them. An empty library, this is a very moving tribute. The Holocaust Memorial is another impressive site. Built on what was no mans land between the dividing walls of East and West it consists of 2711 slabs of concrete of varying heights and occupies 4.7 acres. It is strange feeling walking through as the large grey walls start to dominate and almost cut out the sun as the slabs grow in height.
Another byproduct of the cold war are the ‘ghost’ stations. Many underground stations were just sealed off when the wall went up to stop people moving across the border. Now opened and renovated they offer a well preserved glimpse into the past. The stations that are working are mostly old and unmodernised. I wish the same could be said for London. The wooden panels and Edwardian tiles are all but gone now, mores the pity. Incidentally getting around is easy and cheap, my Berlin WelcomeCard was €26 for 72 hours.
You would be wrong in thinking that Berlin is quagmired in WW II history. The German Film Museum is a must for any cinema enthusiast. This treasure trove of celluloid history with stills, props and memorabilia is captivating. M, Das Boat, Metropolis are all looked at in detail. There are a staggering number of influential German film directors represented. Costumes and scripts as well as movies being shown bring it all to life. There is plenty to read as well both in English as well as German. The shop is well stocked with all those German art house films that are hard to find elsewhere.
I hadn’t realised when booking my hotel that I was opposite such an important building. Grey and monolithic it is nondescript. But it houses the museum of German Resistance. What is that I hear you ask? The story of Claus Graf Von Stauffenburg is told well in the recent film starring Tom Cruise in the lead. It is the plot to assassinate Hitler known as operation Valkyrie. With other disillusioned officers in the Wehrmacht he hatched a daring plot to blow Hitler up in one of his bunkers and take control with the aim of surrendering to the Allied forces.
The plot failed and Stauffenburg and his collaborators were executed on the same day in the building the museum is now housed. I watched the film as was staggered to see that the final scenes were shot on location in the courtyard where they were murdered. Valkyrie is a fascinating story and good film worth watching if only to see another side of history. There were in fact 49 attempts on Hitler’s life, there are many stories of resistance that come to light in the museum that make you think ‘what if’.
Berlin is a brilliant vibrant city, which is full of art, history, beautiful architecture and wonderful food. My stay was all to short, as I would have loved to see many other sights, including the old airfield where the Berlin airlift took place. Now abandoned Tempelhofer has become a peoples park where kite flying, picnics, fashion shows and music festivals are the norm. A recent attempt by a property developer to buy the land and put thousands of much needed homes on it was thwarted by local residents who like it just the way it is, a bit scruffy but open space for families to enjoy. It’s this spirit of Berlin that I love, looking for the new yes but hanging on to the old when it’s important.