Hello To Berlin
Despite having been there at least half a dozen times I still needed to do some prep for this trip to Berlin because it was a leisure trip. The city is so vast and sprawling that it shows many sides and you never see the same one twice, especially if you end up crossing Alexanderplatz – possibly the grimmest and most depressing square in Europe – in the pouring rain, an experience I promise you will go far out of your way to avoid a second time. I finally read Isherwood’s ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ and was very disappointed by its faintness, and failed to do any genning up on the museums.
But as most of my previous trips have been for business, all I’d seen were conference centres, hotel lobbies and Excel-type places with the odd duff restaurant thrown in. Where, I wondered, is the Berlin of ‘Victoria‘, where free-spirited multi-linguists hop from basement club to funky night bar? My last trip’s high spot was ending up in a Bavarian cafe being force-fed schnitzel to the sound of a yodelling band.
This time I stayed in the more atmospheric East – I was visiting a friend from Ohio learning German there – and we hung out in the cooler neighbourhoods. To say that Berlin is not a pretty city (it’s not) is to miss the point. It has developed an extraordinary atmosphere through a simple one-word policy that Mr Trump could learn; tolerance. It’s an urban environment that has come to grips with its legacy (the wars, the wall) and has successfully learned how to present it to future generations.
The ghost-wall still exists, as an open-air art gallery (the two wall shots here were taken untreated on my phone), as a series of demarcations, photographs displays, sections, sculptures and audio-posts. The SS HQ is now a razed area hosting a display currently called ‘The Topography of Terror’, which is designed to educate future generations.
But the evolving city is more than this – of course there are great high-end restaurants (try Pauley Saal, housed in an old Jewish girls’ school) – but there are many cheaper, more communal cafes with an egalitarian, anything-goes buzz and food that’s more innovative for being presented in a relaxed environment.
Expect to walk around the streets with a beer bottle in your hand whether you’re young or old, graffiti on every available space, a distinct lack of trees, painful travel ticketing systems and endless rows of ugly concrete blocks that strangely help make Berlin unique.
If I could capture it in a painting or photograph, it would probably be from the night-time windows of the Michelberger restaurant, a white tiled room overlooking the S-Bahn, so that flashing trains and trains refract through the glass like a piece of Duchamp modernism. On a business trip it’s hard to see just how much Berlin is a party town where it would be very hard to sit alone in a bar or cafe for long without making friends. But what about during the day?
A museum pass seems a good idea, but possibly not for a weekend. It covers 27 museums and with the best will in the world you will cover four. However, it saves you from the chaos of the summer break queues. On Museum Island the Neues Museum lost its interiors in the war but has now been rebuilt for its Egyptian acquisitions to include a magnificent room for the head of Nefertiti.
The richness of the artefacts is match by fine curatorship, so that there’s a strong emphasis on the ways in which ‘civilised’ art interacts with so-called ‘Barbaric’ art, especially in an exhibition that contrasts kings and princesses from different continents. Items are presented clearly and in context, and the lost treasures of Aleppo (including the highly decorated remains of the souk) make you realise how fragile the memories of the past become when barbarians elect to destroy them. Other grand pieces like the Ishtar Gate, while undoubtably spectacular with its vibrant blue tiles, feel out of context in indoor settings, but at least they’re safe in Berlin.
Things to avoid; mad people (obvs), Checkpoint Charlie (the museum is good but the checkpoint itself is not – do you really want a selfie with a bloke dressed as a border guard?), currywurst, the snack that combines the worst of both ingredients and – more arguable, this – the Reichstag, an elegant blank that I’d visited before and still remember very little about.
Street markets, art and music are largely interchangeable throughout Northern Europe but still add colour and life to Berlin. After six trips I finally feel as if I’ve seen something more. It’s easy to skim across, harder to dig into, but worth it.