Berlin is Germany’s biggest city, a vibrant metropolis with a stunning past, an exuberant present and a bright future. The first person to lift off into the air did so in Berlin, pictures learnt motion there and no other city in Europe has as many trees as Berlin (about 400,000 of them). Much to my delight Berlin also has the world’s longest underground rail network and an extensive network of regional trains, city trams and buses which are exceptionally easy to use (even if you don’t speak the language). My husband and I visited Berlin for a Canadian visitor’s visa. Canada has no embassy in the Netherlands and not wanting to mail his passport we decided to go to Berlin in person. I’m very glad that we did!
With the visa out of the way we were free to explore Berlin. What struck me most about the city is it’s extraordinary past and how the layers of that past form a kaleidoscope of art, architecture and culture in the present day city. From spectacular Prussian palaces, to stark holocaust memorials, to murals and graffiti painted on the remaining stretches of the Berlin wall – history is everywhere.
Like most cities, Berlin has its tourist attractions (the TV tower, the enormous KaDeWe department store and its many marvellous museums). We saw these sites from the outside, but tourist attractions are not what makes a city. For me a city is its people, their history and the places they frequent. So Beto and I spent most of our time walking through Berlin’s neighbourhoods and discovering their present and their past. We began at the Hackesche Höfe. During the industrial revolution workers lived in this neighbourhood under horrible conditions. In response, architecturally fascinating courtyard dwellings were built as a way to incorporate living, working and culture. Remarkably, and despite hardships during the various wars of the 20th century (the two World Wars and the Cold War) the area continues to blend home, work and culture today.
The next day we began in the centre of reunited Berlin at Potsdamer Platz – now a sea of ultra modern buildings and the home of the Canadian Embassy. From there we visited the Holocaust memorial, a series of 2711 grey monoliths designed by American architect Peter Eisenmann. The monoliths form a labyrinth through which visitors can walk and thus experience the confusion and helplessness felt by the Jews during the holocaust. We walked on through the Brandenburg gate, a monument to peace and victory topped by the Quadriga, a roman chariot drawn by four horses and driven by Victoria, the goddess of victory. During the Cold War the gate stood just to the east of the wall and access was denied, but today the gate represents yet another kind of peace and victory, symbolizing the reunified city. From the gate we walked along Unter der Linden Boulevard, marvelling at the amazing history of the street and the wonderful architecture on either side, including the fabulous Berliner Dom. During the walk we were drawn to the Neue Wache, the central memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany. Within a gray stone room sits a statue: ‘Mother mourning her dead son’ by Käthe Kollwitz. Most visitors are drawn to the statue, but I was struck by the emptiness that surrounds her – the emptiness left by war.
Against our general dispositions we started the next day on Berlin’s 5th Avenue, the Kurfürstendamm. The glitz and glamour of the modern fashion world was interesting, but I must admit that we quickly moved on to the glitz and glamour of the 1700’s at Schloss Charlottenburg the stunning Hohenzollern summer palace of Sophie Charlotte, wife of Fredrich III. From there we stepped forward in time and visited the Berlin Wall museum gaining insight into what life was like in Berlin during the Cold War. With images of the stark grey Wall fresh in our minds we then headed to the East Side Gallery. This is the longest remaining section of the wall (1.3 km) and was decorated after the turnaround by artists from East and West. Unfortunately, today the murals have been graffitied and are crumbling, but with some imagination one can still feel the hope transferred via paint to wall when the murals were first made. That evening we decided to experience the contemporary local scene in Prenzlauer Berg. The area was a centre for East Berlin’s young political dissidents during the Cold War. Today only a few of the crumbling buildings in which those young people lived remain, nestled between beautifully restored 19th century facades, but the laid back feel of the neighbourhood lingers.
Our final day began in Potsdam, a small community south west of the city that is famous for its palaces: Schloss Sanssouci and Schloss Cecilienhof. In1740, Frederick II began designing the stunning Schloss Sanssouci (which means ‘without cares’) as a summer residence to which he could escape from the nasty business of being king. He was diametrically opposed to his “Soldier King” father, and although he successfully fought wars (while his father never did) Frederick II was an all-round aesthete who loved art, music and fine wines (even putting statues of Bacchus’ brothers and sisters around his palace). His magnificent Sanssouci palace and its lovely gardens show this artisitc side of Frederick the Great. Schloss Cecilienhof is much younger and was built in the early 1900s for Crown Prince Wilhelm and his wife Cecilie, Cecilienhof was the last palace of the Hohenzollerns but it didn’t really become famous until 1945 when the historic Potsdam Conference was held there in August. This conference between Stalin, Truman and Churchill (later represented by Attlee) concerned the further conduct of the occupying powers in Germany (The Soviet Union, the USA and England). It was in Potsdam, just after the Second World War ended, that the first chill of the Cold War was felt.
Berlin has been altered by the horrors of its past, but the spirit of Berliners (natives and newcomers) and their remarkable ability to rebuild, has made the city today a vibrant metropolis. To capture that feel before leaving we spent our last evening in another of Berlin’s local neighbourhoods – Kreuzberg. Kreuzberg was once West Berlin’s counter culture head quarters – on the fringe and with uniquely cheap housing. Today it retains some of that fringe flair and mixes it with the city’s more recent Turkish nuances. The result is another wonderful mix of East meets West, community and culture – oh and great döners and falafels!