Whoo hoo, first the Eurostar. Eight hours from London to Berlin with quick changes at Brussels and Cologne. Everything about it, the efficiency, the quality of the trains, the comfort puts the public transport system in my country to shame.
The tunnel passed in a flash and the only discordant note was the barbed wire along the tracks posing yet another barrier to add grief to the trials of asylum seekers. Beyond the wire, the French fields were their usual precise soothing patchwork of green and ochre.
How could I go to Europe and not drop into my current favourite city? I first visited 2 years ago (see 8 blogs from 2014) and fell in love with the vitality, the sensitive presentation of history, the architecture…..I wanted to test the impressions of that 2 weeks. Back to the same apartment at Hackescher Markt, I find I am beginning to know my way around the bigger city. Part of the pleasure of Berlin is that it is so accessible.
Why am I so taken with this world city?
- is it in my DNA? – I do have same Prussian blood
- is it the architecture old and new?
- is it the honest way the city presents its 20th century history?
- is it the preservation of the Prussian architecture?
- is it the vitality of the streets?
- is it the proliferation of cultural opportunities?
- is it the constant opportunity for street photography?
As a refresher I take the general intro Berlin Walk; the guide gives me new information. He claims that in the past 5 years rents have gone up 65% and house prices doubled. No surprise then that while I was there, residents held a robust demonstration against the gentrification of the city.
Hopefully Berlin will not be a casualty of its own success. Forty thousand people are moving here each year and no wonder. There are 450 publicly funded/subsidised art galleries and museums. 3 opera companies and 6 world class orchestras. Before I wax too lyrical I also have to mention that there were 40,000 instances of pickpocketing reported to the police last year.
Saturday night I went to the Karl Schinkel designed neo-classical Konzerthaus which was opened in 1821. Its own in-house orchestra preformed Dvorak, Schhostakowitsch and Schumann with guest violinist Julian Rachlin. On the way I detoured around the free open air concert on a closed Unter den Linden outside the Humboldt University where Daniel Baremboim was conducting the state orchestra. Music in the air, Berlin flowers. I am reminded that 29 Nobel Prize winners studied at this university; Einstein worked and Marx studied here too.
The next day all Berlin seemed to be at the flea market in Mauer Park.
After the market I spend a few hours wandering the streets of Prenzlauer Berg before walking back to Mitte ending with a flop on the deck chairs alongside the Spree contemplating the Dom, still stained black from the fires caused by Allied bombing. I was surprised to be told (by a Scot) that 80% of British bombs didn’t get within 5 miles of their target.
Later I put the skates on to re-visit the architecture of Potsdammer Platz and run accr0ss a #BlackLivesMatter demonstration. I am again reminded of the cultural mix of young Berlin seeing so many African Americans read the roll call of those who have died by violence and police shooting in the USA.
Being so close I slip in a visit to Martin Gropious House which I had missed last time and see an exhibition of photographs by Bernice Abbott who started as Man Ray’s assistant before becoming famous herself. Her most known photos are the New York black and white streetscapes and portraits of people such as Jean Cocteau, James Joyce and Sylvia Beech. Then it’s a beer under the wondrous roof of the always lively Sony Centre.
I did catch up with other architecture that also inspires me
Again I ask myself in what other city would so many experiences fall into my path.
On my last day in Berlin I have the roller skates on. Back to walk the shopping stretch of Kurfürstendamm before lunch at the biggest store in Europe, the smart KaDeWe. Like Fortnum and Mason the food floor seems to have dumbed down a little since my visit 2 years ago.
Nearby outside the S Bahn station there is an evocative list of the concentration camps trains left for, from here.
Not far away there is a sculpture. The words etched on the back say:
Remember: when injustices take place, when people are discriminated against and persecuted – never remain indifferent. Indifference kills.
These are words my own country with its disgraceful offshore detention centres for asylum seekers, would do well to take to heart.
The plaque besides the sculpture says:
A cynical lie: the inscription above the main gate to Auschwitz 1 concentration camp: ARBEIT MACHT FREI (work makes you free). When the SS ordered them to make this sign, the prisoners hid their message in the word ARBEIT. They turned the letter B upside down. It signalled their courage, their will to overcome the paralysing fear and later be able to tell the world what happened in Auschwiitz.
Then it’s off to Tempelhof Airport, the iconic site of the airlifts during the cold war and now just acres of dry rough grass which reputedly comes alive with local recreational use and concerts.
Since Berlin is enlightened enough to ban shopping on Sundays, I finish Monday with a visit to the courtyards of Hackescher Hof, once a centre of German Jewry and marked outside by the bronze plaques with names of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. (It is worth noting that there were 5 million non-Jewish victims of the holocaus.
Now the Hof is a retail/bar complex and houses my favourite shop for presents of schmick acrylic art jewellery.
One of my best memories of Berlin is the vitality of the street:
the tourists who use bicycles tours, Segway tours, walking tours ,
the ever new graffiti
For the first time in Berlin, in Alexanderplatz, I noticed the homeless people. Why wouldn’t I? They are in every major city in the world. I hesitated about putting the following photos in, out of respect for them, but really we all need to be confronted with the underside as well as the beauty and fun, so that we are reminded of the real issues that face all of us.
Berlin has so many experiences. I still regret I didn’t have time to visit again the amazing Ishtar Gate on Museum Island or to wander the private galleries around Auguststrasse.
I did however see again the murals painted during the cold war on the wall of what was once Goering’s Luftwaffe Building, then the Communist party HQ and now ironically the German Finance Ministry (tax office too!).
And one can never go to Berlin with the obligatory dues being paid to the Brandenburg Gate. This time with an anti-Brexit demo. in front.
That night I had truely global dinner. Around the corner from the Adina at Hackescher Markt where I stay, there is a new Japanese restaurant. The trouble was that the menu for the Japanese dishes was written in German. I was reduced to pointing to an unknown fellow diner’s dinner and saying in the famed words of Sleepless in Seattle “I’ll have what she’s having”.
Next morning after good coffee and a croissant at my now fav.and cheap Berlin cafe on the square behind the apartment, it is time to go. Again I believe I have left much undone, especially when it comes to understanding the architectural layers of the city.
So what is the take home message for me? Berlin accessible and now familiar, still has its great world city ambience. A kaleidoscope of colourful and cultural experiences. But I don’t know whether a 3 day or a 2 week visit is what I want anymore. To really know this city, not just sample its complex delights one would need to live her for a while. I wish I could