Berlin – first time impressions

I originally wrote this post in 2014, following my first, and so far, only visit to Berlin, but it is worth taking a look back at what I discovered during the six days I spent in the German capital.

Almost a quarter of a century after the wall came down Berlin still feels like a city of two halves. Most of the historic and interesting buildings are in the eastern half of the city, i.e. they were behind the wall! Because West Berlin was cut off from former West Germany and was totally isolated from both East Berlin and East Germany (the DDR), it developed into something of a provincial back water. Its citizens were even given special status under the West German constitution and were exempt from things such as National Service. West Berlin was also a centre of radicalism, alternative lifestyles and student protests, as well as a thriving centre for the arts.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, we based ourselves in West Berlin; in the Charlottenburg area to be precise.  Charlottenburg, is a pleasant and well laid out part of the city, and was a separate town until 1920 when, like its northerly neighbour Spandau, it was absorbed into Berlin proper. Just around the corner from our hotel was a lovely park, complete with a small lake, and at lunchtime after our arrival in Berlin, we sat out on the terrace of a converted boathouse over-looking the lake, enjoying a few beers, plus a bite to eat whilst soaking up the sunshine and the unseasonably warm temperatures.

About 10-15 minutes’ walk away was the Wilmersdorf Shopping Centre, and just one stop further, on the U-Bahn (underground) was the Schloss Charlottenburg; the summer residence of the Prussian Kings, and later the German Emperors. We weren’t actually that far from the city centre, and on the Sunday, we practically walked the whole way into the city, just taking a bus for the last stretch from Tiergarten to Potsdamer Platz. Tiergarten is the Berlin equivalent of London’s Hyde Park, and like its British counterpart has plenty of walks through alternating areas of trees and open parkland. En route we stopped top browse at what must be Berlin’s largest flea market, stopping afterwards for a well-earned beer at a brewpub housed in a railway arch beneath the main S-Bahn line into the city.

Potsdamer Platz, on the other hand is all new steel and shiny glass, having been transformed from a wasteland of dereliction and abandonment, due to its position in “no-man’s-land” between the halves of the formerly divided city. During the 1990’s it was Europe’s largest building site, and now has become virtually a city within a city. One of its most striking developments is the imposing Sony Centre, designed by the architect Helmut Jahn. Of interest to the beer lover is a large brewpub, called Lindenbräu. On show inside is what must be the world’s only silver-plated brew-kettle! Despite the chill of the late afternoon air, we sat outside, watching the comings and goings.

Apart from what remains of the wall, Berlin’s two “must see” sights are the Reichstag or parliament building, plus that iconic symbol of the city, the Brandenburg Gate. On the afternoon of our first day, we caught the S-Bahn into the city centre and alighted at the newly built, Hauptbahnhof, or main station. All glass and steel, the station is constructed on several levels, with the new north-south lines running at subterranean level, and the east-west lines at right angles, on the top. All very impressive, and as we came out of the main entrance, we turned to view the equally impressive exterior.

We made our way towards the Reichstag, crossing an area of newly created parkland. We could see the parliament building, topped with its large glass dome, ahead of us. It was a sunny afternoon, and there were crowds milling about in front of the Reichstag. We stopped for a few photo opportunities but decided to leave a tour of the building until another day. Instead, we headed towards the imposing Brandenburg Gate, almost round the corner from the Reichstag, and walked through one of the portals into former East Berlin.

On the other side of the gate is the historic Unter den Linden (under the lime trees), once the most fashionable boulevard in Berlin. This area has witnessed much re-building since the fall of the wall, including the reconstruction of Berlin’s best known and most luxurious pre-war hotel the Hotel Adlon. We hung around for a few photo opportunities before passing back through the gate, and headed off in the direction of Postdamer Platz. On the way we stopped to look and reflect at the poignant Holocaust Memorial; a series of hundreds of different sized granite blocks, all laid out in neat rows.

Later on, we walked back into former East Berlin, in search of somewhere to eat, passing one of the few remaining buildings dating from the Nazi era, the former Aviation Ministry which, when opened, was one of the largest office blocks of its kind. We returned a day or so later, visiting the vast open square at Alexanderplatz and the associated shopping centres. It is in this sector of the city that trams still operate, and in the main square there is a “shared space” arrangement, where the tram lines are set into the slabs of the square. It takes a bit of getting used to at first but is fine so long as one keeps an eye out for approaching trams when crossing the lines. One of the most striking sights in East Berlin is the TV Tower, built as long ago as 1968, but still affording spectacular views over the city.

Alexanderplatz includes East Berlin’s largest department store, Galeria Kaufhof. This massive store, with six levels is well worth a look, but even more impressive is West Berlin’s Ka De We (Kaufhaus Des Westens – Department Store of the West). Ka De We is even larger, selling just about everything, but the most interesting, and tempting, are the numerous food stalls on the 5th floor, where one can indulge in all manner of luxury and gourmet food stuffs, with many equipped with seats so one can eat, and drink the items there.

Towards the end of the DDR regime, the authorities spent a lot of money on restoring an historic part of the city, known as the Nikolaiviertel.  The restorations took place to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin. As well as houses and shops, the planners constructed a replica of the city’s oldest pub, zum Nuβbaum. The original, which stood the other side of the River Spree was destroyed during an air raid in 1943. Today, Nikolaiviertel is a very pleasant area to stroll around, and forms a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of Alexanderplatz.

We also had a couple of trips out from the city; side-trips as Americans would call them. The first was an excursion to the nearby city of Potsdam, home to the Kings of Prussia and their successors, the German Emperors. Potsdam is within Zone C of the Berlin Transport System and was only half an hour’s ride away by train from our hotel. Our train tickets also covered us on the local buses within the city, so we were able to travel up to Schlosspark Sanssoucci, where the palaces are situated.

Being early in the season, most of the buildings were still closed, but as the weather was fine it was good to stroll through the ornamental gardens and well laid out parkland, admiring the opulence of former times. It would have been worth spending time in Potsdam itself, as there is plenty to see within the town, but unfortunately our schedule did not allow it. There are also areas of lake-land around the city, as well as slightly further back in to Berlin (Wannsee).

Potsdam lies to the south-west of Berlin, but there is also some equally pleasant country on the other side of the city as well. A large lake, known as the Müggelsee (nothing to do with Harry Potter), is an equally short train ride to the east of Berlin. We visited the lakeside suburb of Kopenick, home to the recently closed Burgerbräu Brewery. It was here that we had our only ride on a tram, travelling from the S-Bahn station to the Braustübel attached to the brewery. We spent a very pleasant afternoon sitting out in the sun, on the terrace, overlooking the perfectly still waters of the Müggelsee, enjoying a few beers. Just perfect, and totally un-expected for early March!

We covered a lot of ground during our six day stay in Berlin, but our visit only scratched the surface. Apart from the sights mentioned, and the many excellent pubs and bars, there are of course, dozens of other reasons for visiting this exciting and vibrant capital city. Amongst Berlin’s many other attractions are a world-famous zoo, renowned art galleries and museums, plus all the stores and shops a shopaholic could dream of. A visit is therefore highly recommended. From the numbers of visitors, we bumped into, from the UK, it would seem that many other Brits agree as well.


1 comment:

Kieron said...

Just in case of interest, I typed up a few notes on Berlin at : which may provide a little info on other drinking establishments. Good luck with your blog in your semi-retirement.