A day strolling through central Berlin

My final day in Berlin before catching the train back to the Netherlands started early, with a walk through the Tiergarten bathed in early morning sun. The peace and quiet was only occasionally interrupted by a cyclist or dog walker. I was making my way to ‘museum island’, which sits in the River Spree and is home to a number of (you guessed it) internationally acclaimed museums. First though, I stopped at perhaps Berlin’s most sombre sight, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany

Nikolaikirche, Nikolaiviertel, Berlin, Germany

Nikolaikirche, Nikolaiviertel, Berlin, Germany

French Cathedral, Berlin, Germany

French Cathedral, Berlin, Germany

French Cathedral, Berlin, Germany

French Cathedral, Berlin, Germany

The site sits at the end of the Tiergarten, close to Brandenburg Tor and the Reichstag. Its 2,711 dark grey concrete slabs are designed almost like a maze, but when you walk through them the ground undulates like a wave creating an odd sense of uncertainty. It was built to commemorate those murdered in the holocaust, and occupies an area that was once part of the ‘death strip’ of the Berlin Wall. In the quiet of the early morning, it was a sobering and emotional experience.

Such a huge and centrally located memorial is testimony to Germany’s recognition of the horrors committed in the 1930s and 1940s, but that legacy is now under attack. A leader of the far-right AfD party, Alexander Gauland, who recently caused a storm of protest by calling the Nazi era a “speck of birds shit” on German history, criticised this memorial, saying “Germans are the only people who plant a monument of shame in the capital”. Revisionist history seems to be growing in popularity everywhere in Europe.

I made my way to the famous boulevard, Unter den Linden, past Humboldt University, and across the Spree to visit the epic Pergamonmuseum. There are so many excellent museums to choose from in this small area, but the Pergamon is exceptional. It houses monumental buildings from antiquity, including the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, and the Ishtar Gate. The latter, constructed on the orders of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, is utterly magnificent. The rest of the museum is filled with a mind-boggling array of priceless artefacts.

I left the museum uplifted, and spent a hour wandering the pleasant area around the vast, domineering Berliner Dom. In the park outside people were having barbecues and musicians entertained the crowds. I headed over the river into the area of Mitte filled with good cafes and restaurants to find somewhere for lunch. I passed a memorial to a Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Nazis (here, there’s always something to remind you of that period) before finding a nice cafe close to the Sophienkirche.

Time was passing and I would have to leave early the next day, so I went back through Alexanderplatz (always an interesting place to be) to visit the oldest church in the city, the 800-year old Nikolaikirche. This iconic twin-towered church overlooks the river and is at the centre of the historic heart of Berlin, parts of  which were faithfully rebuilt after the war. It’s a bit touristy, and the restored historic buildings rub shoulders with modern concrete structures, but there are several traditional german pubs serving good food and even better beer.

I had one last place I needed to visit to complete my trip down memory lane, the Prater Beer Garden. I was introduced to this traditional beer garden by a friend when visiting Berlin for work, we had such a good time on a warm summer evening the memory of it has stayed with me. Late afternoon on a hot day, the place was packed. I joined a mixed table of Germans and Americans to enjoy a beer and giant pretzel in the sun, safe in the knowledge that I’d be returning soon.

Nikolaiviertel, Berlin, Germany

Nikolaiviertel, Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Berlin, Germany

Sophienkirche, Berlin, Germany

Sophienkirche, Berlin, Germany

Jewish cemetery memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Jewish cemetery memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Prater Beer Garden, Berlin, Germany

Prater Beer Garden, Berlin, Germany

Cold War history and the ghost of Bertolt Brecht in Berlin

I’d arrived in Berlin without a plan, at least not a coherent one. I wanted to revisit some of the places I’d been before, and to check out some neighbourhoods that had been recommended to me, but other than that I just followed my nose. I made an early start on my second morning in the city, getting the U-Bahn to the Berlin Wall Memorial and Museum in Mitte. I arrived before the museum opened, but the memorial park over the road has excellent audio and video exhibits that you can visit at any time.

There’s little left of the wall that defined the geography of Berlin from 1961 to 1989. When it was built it had little regard for communities or families, cutting across roads and rail lines, and bringing normal life in the city to a halt. Destroying the hated symbol of a divided city was a very popular thing to do. The museum and memorial park has retained a segment of the original wall, not just the concrete blocks that were targets for graffiti in the West, but also the watchtowers, searchlights and electronic detection devices collectively known as the ‘death strip’.

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

It combines this with testimonials of those the wall affected, and remembers the 136 people who died attempting to cross the wall. There’s audio of people’s stories and you can read about how the wall came to be constructed. Unsurprisingly, the local council wanted to get rid of the whole thing, but the city insisted on keeping it. The museum does an excellent job of explaining the social, political and economic causes and effects of the wall. Afterwards, you can visit a peaceful cemetery which, like so much else in Berlin, became off limits for anyone on the wrong side of the wall.

It turns out that Bertolt Brecht, the legendary playwright, theatre director and founder of the Berliner Ensemble, lived quite nearby at the Brecht House on Chausseestrase. As a Marxist playwright, Brecht was despised by the Nazis, he fled Germany fearing for his life when Hitler came to power in 1933. He ended up in the United States where, as an anti-Fascist, he was initially welcomed. A suspected communist in post-war America he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He returned to Europe in 1947, and then to live in East Berlin in 1949.

His final years, before his death in 1956, were spent at this house and, to my surprise, he is buried with his  partner, Helene Weigel, in the adjacent Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery. It’s only possible to visit the house on a guided tour, I’d arrived just in time for the final tour of the day – at midday – but I couldn’t find anyone to ask for a ticket. I hung around until a woman appeared. I was the only person for the tour that day and had a personalised visit in English. It was brilliant.

I went to the cemetery to see Brecht’s and Weigel’s grave. I picked up a leaflet about the cemetery and even I recognised several of the names in it. Passing a mausoleum that still carried bullet holes from fighting in World War Two, I spent a peaceful hour just wandering around this shady space. This is Berlin’s version of the Père Lachaise in Paris or Highgate in London. Amongst other luminaries buried here are philosopher Friedrich Hegel, author Heinrich Mann, and eight members of the 20 July 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler, that was led by Claus von Stauffenberg.

Brecht House, Chausseestrase, Berlin, Germany

Brecht House, Chausseestrase, Berlin, Germany

Brecht House, Chausseestrase, Berlin, Germany

Brecht House, Chausseestrase, Berlin, Germany

Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, Berlin, Germany

Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, Berlin, Germany

Bertolt Brecht's grave, Dorotheenstädtischer, Berlin, Germany

Bertolt Brecht’s grave, Dorotheenstädtischer, Berlin, Germany

Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, Berlin, Germany

Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery, Berlin, Germany

It’s impossible to avoid history here, or to stray into the realms of cliche describing a visit to Berlin. After a morning exploring, I set off looking for lunch. Luckily, I was near the mind-bendingly trendy streets behind Oranienburger Strasse. There are more boutique restaurants, bistros and cafes here than London’s Shoreditch. I found a deli that did a superb bagel and salt beef, washed down with a craft beer recommended to me by two friendly Americans on the next table. Fully refreshed, it was time to get back on the streets.

Berlin, the city on the Spree

I first visited Berlin in early 1988. I still recall the sense of total trepidation on the train journey across the communist German Democratic Republic to West Berlin. The Soviet Union’s new policy of Glasnost, or openness, meant travelling through East Germany wasn’t as difficult as in the past, but the Communist authorities were still very much in control. West Berlin, split into zones of control between American, British and French administrations, was a surreal place to arrive, familiar and alien at the same time.

I crossed into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, it felt thrilling in a ‘Boys Own’ sort of way to pass from the American Zone into the Russian Zone. My recollections of that day trip into the East are hazy, but I have strong memories of eating sausage and drinking a beer in Alexanderplatz. Not to mention being stopped for jaywalking by a policeman – my overactive imagination envisaging ten years in the Gulag for a minor offence. In the end I was given a slap on the wrist and allowed to continue walking the streets of Mitte.

Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Russian war memorial, Berlin, Germany

Russian war memorial, Berlin, Germany

Back in the west, I walked along the wall to the still bullet- and bomb-scarred Reichstag building. It was in a desolate no man’s land and still resembled the war-torn building I remembered from pictures of the fall of Berlin in 1945. The Brandenburg Gate came with a backdrop of the Berlin Wall snaking around it. I walked down the main avenue of the Tiergarten to the Soviet War Memorial to the Russians who died in the battle for Berlin. There were Soviet soldiers guarding the monument. It all felt very permanent.

My next visit came two years later in the summer of 1990. I flew into the iconic 1920s Tempelhof airport, which in the 1930s provided a backdrop for the Nazi regime and, during the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift, became an international symbol of the Cold War. As introductions to a city go, it was one redolent of the worst history the 20th century has to offer. Luckily, I’d arrived in a Berlin that was on the cusp of momentous change – the Berlin Wall was being reduced to rubble and turned into tourist memorabilia. I have a couple of pieces of it somewhere.

In November of 1989, mass demonstrations had forced the East German authorities to allow free movement between east and west, and by the time I arrived the dismantling of the dictatorship of the German Democratic Republic was already underway. It was an extraordinary time and place to find myself. The feeling of history changing course seemed to be everywhere and, despite the physical apparatus of the Cold War being visible, everything was different.

Berlin is a city that has fascinated me most of my adult life, and I’ve visited a few times for work and pleasure since those youthful trips. Later this year, we’ll be moving to live there, but it is a very different city that awaits us thirty years after my first visit. Today, Berlin seems firmly focused on the future, massive construction is going on across the city to accommodate a growing population. A visit to investigate our neighbourhood options opened my eyes to a simple fact: my mental topography of Berlin is well past its sell by date.

Statue of Friedrich II, Unter den Linden, Berlin, Germany

Statue of Friedrich II, Unter den Linden, Berlin, Germany

Trabant museum, Berlin, Germany

Trabant museum, Berlin, Germany

Russian war memorial, Berlin, Germany

Russian war memorial, Berlin, Germany

Russian war memorial, Berlin, Germany

Russian war memorial, Berlin, Germany

French Church and Friedrich Schiller monument, Berlin, Germany

French Church and Friedrich Schiller monument, Berlin, Germany

It isn’t hard to find reminders of the past, but if you want a symbol of where the city is headed, it is that Check Point Charlie is now an urban beach with bars and cafes. I felt a little outraged that something so meaningful had been ‘desecrated’, but who wants to live with the past for ever? It was the same revisiting places I’d encountered all those years ago. Mitte is now a painfully trendy district filled with bleeding edge restaurants, bars and shops. The Reichstag has been given a remarkable makeover, and the Soviet war memorial is no longer guarded by soldiers.

I spent my time on this trip walking from place to place, connecting the dots between districts in an effort to get a better sense of the jigsaw of central Berlin districts and how they fit together. It certainly wasn’t long enough to come close to understanding this extraordinary place, but it whetted my appetite for more.

Destination Berlin

Four years and four months, almost to the day, after arriving in the Netherlands, we’re heading off to pastures new. Starting in August, an exciting new adventure will begin in the German capital, Berlin. A new job, new apartment, new neighbourhood and a new language to try to master (never really got the better of Dutch). I was recently in Berlin for a few days when the temperature was in the high 20s, it was a good time to visit but I’m told the winter can be terrifying – and very, very long.

A bear, Berlin, Germany

A bear, Berlin, Germany

Four days was just enough to get a taste of this extraordinary city. Berlin is undergoing a huge transformation, made visible everywhere by the sheer mass of construction taking place. As you walk around its different neighbourhoods, it feels like an exciting, progressive place, facing only forward. It’s rightly thought of as one of Europe’s most liveable big cities and a renowned centre of culture. But it is still a city shackled to its recent past. Whether the abomination of the Nazis or the city divided by the Cold War, you don’t have to look far to be reminded of darker days.

It will to be a big wrench to leave the Netherlands, a place that we’ve grown to love, but I can already tell that Berlin is going to be fascinating. A few days spent exploring the city, was followed by a road trip back to the Netherlands – Bremen, Hamburg, Lubeck and Schwerin. I’d never been to any of these places before, and it made me realise how little I know Germany. There’s more to come from the road trip soon, for the time being here are a few impressions from Berlin’s sunny streets.