My wife, Diane, and I have got just two days to explore central Berlin. After leaving our Hotel, the Relexa in Anhalterstrasse, we quickly find the only remaining stretch of the infamous Berlin Wall, alongside the original old cobbled street. Behind the wall is the `Exhibition of Terror’ containing photos of people shot trying to get over the Wall. It mixes strangely with modern life, but it is something essential, if grim, to retain. Just past this is the famed Checkpoint Charlie, complete with pretend guards and guns. Reminding us that life goes on, regardless of a murky past, is a quirky shop selling East German military and polizei caps, and uniforms, at a very reasonable price!
Returning to the main thoroughfare leading to Berlin central (`Mitte’), we reach Potsdamer Platz. We are amazed by the breathtaking modern architecture of the three huge business towers, whose angles and materials give them an almost surreal look. As if to soften this tough financial image, brightly coloured tents litter their base, selling hot-dogs, beer and crafts. Between the Platz and the Brandenburg Gate appears a large plot of land that is at first perplexing. It contains hundreds of grey stone blocks, all different heights and widths, with a maze of pathways between. Then we find a poignant plaque set in the pavement – this was a monument to the Jews killed by the Nazis, built over what used to be Hitler’s bunker. Diane didn’t want to walk the pathways, saying it would be too upsetting, so we carry on, returning our minds to happier themes.
Not far away is the Brandenburg Gate itself (`Brandenburger Tor’) where, as I read the blurb on a poster, an old lady saunters up to me and flashes the front page of a dubious magazine from under her coat. Its cover has a picture of a clothed man and a woman in a compromising position. The old woman asks me something in German. Shrugging, I just say `Britischer’. She says `oh’ impassively and saunters off again. I am unsure what exactly she is doing, but it seems furtive and possibly illegal! Under the archways and we stand in the square, looking up at the golden statues on top of the Gate. At the other end of the square is an amazing, full-size, photographic copy of the whole Gate, on a plastic sheet covering a building site – a brand new metro station.
The imposing Reichstag is just down the road from the Gate toward the river Spree – though, at first, I confuse the back for the front. Its parking area is filled with the most expensive looking police cars I have ever seen, all top model Mercedes and BMWs, some with darkened back windows and curtains. We stroll down to the riverside and find three small white crosses, with photos of people shot by the East Berlin guards for attempting to swim to freedom. Then, we go around the real front of the Reichstag and come across the huge expanse of ground made famous in films of Hitler’s rallies. The concrete has been replaced by grass, but the view is still imprinted on the minds of the whole world, a chilling reminder of unchecked dictatorial power.
In the centre of the Reichstag (now used by the German parliament) is a big glass dome, open to the public and offering a great view of Berlin. But, the public happens to form a very long queue, so we skip that, hoping to get in tomorrow. Back at the Brandenburg Gate, we have been out just over 3 hours and our bellies tell us it is time for a snack. We enter an expensive-looking restaurant, where a waitress speaks in German. Again I say `Britischer’, trying to shrug amiably, and she replies in German. In English, I ask for a snack. She responds in German and hands me a different menu… also in German. I say we want something light. Trying to describe `light’ with my hands doesn’t work. She goes away. A second waitress comes over and asks, in broken-English, “You like a croissant with bacon and cheese?” I give up and meekly reply `yes’. I’d written down some useful phrases, but the sheet is still in a bag at the hotel! After this we make a quick exit and take a closer look at the Gate.
Leading from Brandenburg square is the Unter den Linden, a wide, tree-lined road with several lanes. It allows the grand statues and buildings space to breathe and show themselves off, which they do, admirably. As I look in a shop window, a youngish but dowdy man approaches me. He, too, furtively opens his raincoat and flashes the same magazine shown to me by the old woman, muttering in German. `Britischer’ I reply. So, he disappears, too. Have I got a `furtive’ magnet attached to my head? Just past Museum Square with its fine church and contemporary arts building, over the bridge, we have a close-up view of the tall communist-built Fernsehturm tower (television tower, with restaurant), that can be seen from almost anywhere in Berlin. We wanted to go up to the top, but, where’s the entrance? No idea! We’ll return tomorrow.
Heading back to the Gate, we come across a very impressive car sales building and are blown away by a gleaming new Bhugatti, a beast of a sports road car. Then, we notice a lower floor containing antiques.We go down to see what’s on offer, wearing our trekking jackets and rucksacks, looking like fish out of water…Salesmen in pin-striped suits and dickie-bows hover everywhere, and a German TV crew takes close-ups of very small jewellery, costing hundreds of thousands.
When I visit a new place we usually take in the location of the main attractions on the first day or two. Then, we return to visit sites already ear-marked. This time? Inexplicably, we decide to go west to the Charlottenburg area, thinking it would be a great place to buy gifts for Christmas. What a mistake!
So, today, Tuesday, we start out in high spirits, and reach the edge of the massive Tiergarten, filled with grass and trees. It used to be a hunting park for royalty. The trees have that wonderful autumnal mixture of browns and reds. Cyclists speed past, some singing to themselves. Groundsmen clear fallen leaves and one is flirting with an attractive female jogger. It is, well, a happy place, and we enjoy the walk immensely.We keep going, and going…and going. Finally, we reach the wide Strasse des 17. June. Eastward we can just see the Brandenberg Gate. Westward, we see a gigantic gold statue atop a monolithic, extremely tall, plinth, the Seigessaule (triumphal column). Until 1938 it stood in front of the Reichstag. It is reached via underground tunnels and there’s a great view of the park from the top.
With one eye on amiable but maniacal cyclists, we plod on, enjoying the lovely blue skies and slightly warm temperature, thinking of the presents we’ll buy. On the outskirts of Charlottenburg, we walk past a huge Mercedes showroom, filled with every model you could think of, displaying prices proving the British are paying well over the odds for their imports!Eventually, we reach the university and sit down. The shopping area remains elusive, so I make an executive decision to give up! We’ll return to Berlin centre instead, using the west-bound Strasse des 17. June.
Like an oasis in a desert of extra-wide martial boulevards, we see a secret bakery tucked away underneath the railway station just past the university. I try my old trick again: shrug, look helpless, and say: “Britischer”. Also shrugging, the shop assistant replied: “I don’t care”. So, I choose what looks edible. Two of those…and… two of those.
At the western end of the Tiergarten we find a park bench. By this time our feet have been worn away to stumps and bending to sit hurts my back. But we’ve got food (we think) and the day is wonderful. As we start to devour a puffy pastry appley thingy, a man in dungarees, pushing a leaf blower, blows leaves everywhere, mainly on us. But, we sit resolutely munching our rations. Who cares – it’s almost romantic!
We finish off the sticky `something’ filled with currants, cinnamon, wash it down with mineral water, and carry on, enjoying the lovely day and people-watching. We pass an older man, trying to fix his bike, his rucksacks and bags piled against a fence. He lets out an angry, exasperated yell. I don’t offer to help because by now I can’t bend down! And, anyway, all I can say is `Britischer’.
We reach the Siegessaule again, and marvel at suicidal Japanese tourists trying to dodge the extremely busy four-lane traffic to reach the statue. I like statues, too, but not enough to get squashed for. Maybe they don’t like tunnels. On we travel with aching feet to the Reichstag. We note, and studiously obey, the graphic signs telling us there is a ban on sun bathing, lighting fires, and barbeques under trees. The queue to get into the building is still long! By now it is getting darker, so we again return, giftless, to the hotel.
Later, in the hotel restaurant, we are served by the best waiter I have ever come across, in any country. Özgür Üzmen, is a personable young man, knowledgeable about wine and food, flamboyant and welcoming, chatty and very friendly. He wishes to make us feel at home…which he does, wonderfully. For three evenings he has gone out of his way to give us a special table. On our days out, we only spent 15 Euros between us, but at dinner I made the mistake of asking Özgur for a `good’ wine. It turned out to be 60 Euros (72 US Dollars, or 41 English pounds) a bottle!
Berlin seems to contain a large number of exhibits and buildings devoted to two of its most horrific eras – the Jewish holocaust and its brief affair with communism. The magnitude of these times cannot simply be forgotten. Yet, today, Berlin is a happy and prosperous place. Its architecture is superb and its spirit is big! Its past does not detract from its position as a great tourist venue.
Though it has the usual expensive restaurants, food is generally cheap enough, and many exhibits are free. Next time, I will have to master use of the `bus and train services, but we enjoy walking anyway, especially as Berlin is `walkable’. Maybe next time we’ll visit just before Christmas: German festive fairs are legendary. Our two days in Berlin didn’t quite go to plan; our return flight was turned back twice and the `plane was changed! But what the heck – we loved it and will just have to go back again to see all the bits we missed.