Monday, 10 November 2014

Ich bin ein Berliner

Having gone to bed around midnight, my good intentions to set out at first light don’t seem like such a good idea. After several presses of the snooze button I finally make it to breakfast around 8 and take my time eating while I plan my attack on the city. I have made a wish list of places to visit and had planned to plot my own route around them, but in the end I opt for the Insider’s walking tour that includes most of them. It leaves at 10.30 from Hackescher Markt, a couple of km from the hotel, and on the way I find myself by chance at Checkpoint Charlie. Since the road is still cordoned off after the celebrations and, presumably, the tourists who attended are still sleeping off their hangovers, it’s quiet and easy to access. The adjacent Macdonalds seems symbolic of times changed.

I pay my 12 Euros and join the tour which is led by an energetic Irishman known as JJ. He is straight out of central casting in the role of preppy academic, but with the kind of enthusiasm that carries you along. Around twenty of us set off on a tour that begins with Museum Island where he cheerfully scores the 5 museums for both general interest and that of specialist scholars. They are all closed on Mondays, so I don’t need to feel guilty about admiring them only from the outside.
Here, too, is the magnificent Berlin Cathedral, renovated after WW2 bomb damage by the communists because it offered the opportunity to invite donations which brought in three times what the work actually cost. On the adjacent side of the Lustgarten is the site of the Royal Palace, which having been demolished earlier and replaced by a communist-era municipal building is now being replaced again, this time with a facsimile of the original at a cost of 1 billion euros.

Crossing the adjacent bridge with its statues depicting the life of a soldier – ending, predictably enough, in the arms of an angel – we head along Unter Den Linden where many of Berlin’s most iconic buildings are located. We begin with the Neue Wache, a building that has had several incarnations but is now a memorial to all those who have lost their lives through war or tyranny. I am quite unprepared for the beauty of this simple sculpture, entitled “bereaved mother” which sits on a dark cobbled floor in a bare room. A mother cradles her fully grown child illuminated by a skylight that’s open to the elements, creating an image of such stark beauty that it moved me to tears. I normally find war memorials too thrusting and overbearing, massive monolithic columns that seem too triumphant to represent the human tragedy of war. This simple memorial, with its inclusive inscription, is much more poignant.

Emerging, blinking, into the street, we move to the next building – Humboldt University, alma mater of such luminaries as Max Planck and the brothers Grimm. The university occupies both sides of the road, and we cross to the library where we begin to explore the inhumanity that has been heaped on the people of Berlin – first by the Nazis and then by the communists. The square here, Bebel Platz, is where a bonfire was made of the books the Nazis considered incompatible with their ideology. A prescient plaque set in the cobbles warns that the culture that burns books will progress to burning people. On the other side of the square a memorial to the book burning offers a window in the ground through which empty bookshelves can be seen.

We progress to Gendarmerie Markt which is being prepared to host a Christmas market. I approve of the fact that it won’t open until December, but the barriers and portaloos don’t really give us the best experience of reputedly one of Berlin’s most picturesque quarters. We pause briefly at Fassbender and Rausch, an artisan chocolate shop which has chocolate replicas of Berlin’s famous buildings in its window, and then stop for lunch. The afternoon begins with an explanation of the partition of Berlin and its implications, assisted by some chalk pavement art from JJ.

We return to Checkpoint Charlie, now put in context by the explanation of Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo, but much busier than earlier and with traffic now flowing. JJ explains that nothing here is genuine except for the symbolic images of soldiers – American one side and Russian the other – both of which depict actual soldiers. The sentry box and signs warning that you are leaving the sector are reproductions erected for tourists. We walk round the corner and pause where the line of the former wall is marked by a double row of cobblestones, as it is for its entire length. I can hardly begin to imagine what it must have been like to live in this divided city.

One of the most iconic symbols of eastern Europe is the Trabant, which is amply celebrated at Trabi World. Not only a museum, it also offers Trabant safaris of the city and these days the vehicles are resplendent with flamboyant paint jobs. Around the next corner we finally arrive at the wall, or at least a segment of it. It looks fairly insubstantial, barely 2 metres high and not very thick – indeed, in places the cement has crumbled away to show the metal reinforcement rods and, in some cases, daylight. But it wasn’t so much the wall – or, more accurately, the pair of walls - that divided the city, it was the no-man’s land between them and the guards that fired upon anybody who dared to cross it. Sand on the ground ensured that everybody left a trace, even if they managed to cross unseen.

The portion of wall that remains is next to the quintessentially communist Ministry of Ministries, part of which formerly served as the Luftwaffe HQ and gained a reputation for having been part of a “no bomb” pact with the RAF on account of the fact that it was left intact when much of the city was destroyed. Actually the reason is more prosaic – its central position made it an excellent navigation aid for approaching bombers. At the far end, beneath a colonnade, is a large mural depicting the communist ideal and, chillingly, set into the square in front of it a monument exactly the same size to the workers who dared to stand up to the communists and were massacred.

The mood of the tour becomes progressively darker as we visit the site of the Nazi HQ – now a Chinese restaurant - and, behind it, stand on the ground above the bunker where Hitler finally committed suicide. The site is now overlooked by apartments which were offered to those the state wanted to reward so despite the site’s history they are considered prestigious. From here it is only a few steps to the Holocaust Memorial, which occupies a whole block and consists of over a thousand stone monoliths of various heights but all with the same footprint. Its sheer scale makes it imposing and it has an eerie ambience but it feels cold and impersonal compared to the stark humanity of Neue Wache.
Our final stop on the tour is the Brandenburg Gate and I realise with a shock that it’s just around the corner – I must have walked along the side of the Holocaust Memorial on my first night here. Access to the Gate is still limited by the AV rigs, but just opposite is the Adlon hotel where the infamous Michael Jackson baby dangling incident occurred. After JJ signs off, I walk to the Reichstag, the government building topped by a giant glass dome that is symbolic of the new transparency of the post-communist government.
Stopping briefly for a gluhwein – it’s pretty chilly – I walk into the Tiergarten intending to take a scenic route back to the end of Ebertstrasse which leads down to my hotel. It turns out that the barriers from the 25th anniversary celebrations are still in place but that sends me on a diversion that passes some statues and memorials. Particularly touching is the memorial to the homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis, a single glossy black block, similar to the holocaust memorial’s monoliths but with a window through which you can glimpse the looped film of two men embracing.

My final sight today is the Topography of Terror, the site of the former Gestapo HQ where a museum displays frank explanations of the horrors inflicted by the nazis. It’s too depressing to stay long, and I’m unsettled to realise that only a small park separates it from my hotel. I take a short cut on leaving and walk across a courtyard where something surreal and alarming happens. As I walk past a metal grille in the ground, I hear a noise that sounds like a person beneath rapping against metal as if to get my attention. I’m too freaked out to stop, but afterwards I can’t work out if it was genuinely somebody below or part of the exhibit.
Back at the hotel, I sit in the bar for a while to use the wifi, then go out to the Italian restaurant at the end of the road for dinner. The food’s great but the service is offhand and I’m amazed to find they don’t take credit cards – that’s the last of my euros, then. And the end of my time as a tourist. Tomorrow I will attend an eco-label conference and then fly home. It has been a brief but fascinating insight into a city scarred yet unbowed by its turbulent past.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Berlin: Arrival

You gotta love Pret. The guy in front of me didn’t stay around for his change. The guy behind the counter gives it to me to drop in the Pret Foundation box. My flight is bumpy and the crayfish and rocket salad not enough to distract me, but we land safely and I’m greeted by a text from Simon telling me that the balloons that traced the Berlin Wall’s route through the city for the 25th anniversary celebrations have already been released. Having not had the time to visit the poppies at the Tower of London I had hoped to overfly them on the ascent, but was unlucky. Having found out after I booked my non-flexible flight that I would arrive on the 25th anniversary of the downfall of the Berlin Wall I was due to arrive just as the celebrations finished. The illuminated balloons seemed to me a perfect symbol and I am sorry to have missed them.

I had planned to take the bus to the city but opt instead for a taxi to save time. It was only after we set off that I noticed the driver smells strongly of alcohol, but his driving is no more hair-raising than other German taxi drivers. The approach to the city involves extensive underground tunnels some of which have been closed, presumably to divert traffic away from the celebrations. This causes some huffing on the part of the driver but he finds a route to the hotel and I arrive around 10pm. Stopping only to drop off my bags and change into trainers, I set off for the Brandenburg Gate.

It’s quickly apparent that the celebrations are over, not least because of the number of people coming towards me carrying the stands on which the balloons had been mounted – some wheeling them on bicycles or pushchairs, others carrying them. As I travel north from Potsdamer Platz the crowds swell and it becomes difficult to make progress against them. I am struck by how quiet they are – given the amount of empty bottles and cans and plastic cups on the ground I imagine significant amounts of alcohol have been consumed.

Reaching the side of the Brandenburg Gate I weave my way through the trucks waiting for the last people to leave so that they can enter the area and begin to take away the event equipment. I work my way round to the front of the gate for my first proper view of this iconic building. There’s a fairly large area cordoned off in front with sound and lighting rigs inside, so it’s hardly up close and personal, but I still feel the sense of a place where history was made.

Returning to the back of the gate (based on the orientation of the chariot on the top), it feels like the end of a festival. Stragglers are lurking but mostly the people have left and the ground is strewn with their detritus. The road stretching back into Tiergarten park is lined with food and drink stalls and the road between them is liberally scattered with plastic cups. Somebody has a lot of clearing up to do. I find a mobile merchandise stall and buy some 25th anniversary souvenirs in case I can’t find them later (as it happens, I don’t), then head back to the hotel. As I leave the venue, the truck sent to pick up the balloon stands is racing to get to them before the revellers do. I hope the revellers win – I imagine they will be valued memorabilia, and I can’t imagine them having any other use.