Considering the traumas Berlin sustained during the 20th century, it’s a miracle it has developed into such a well adjusted city.
WORDS: Alison Grinter
Bombed to the ground during World War II, it was rebuilt only to be brutally chopped in half by what Germans call ‘die Mauer’ (the Wall). Reunification hasn’t been a walk in the park, either – unemployment in the east is at around 20% and the city is flat broke. But while Berlin has never tried to gloss over its turbulent past – there are museums and monuments commemorating everything from the Holocaust to the Stasi’s brutal repression of the East German people – the city most certainly has its sights set on the future. This attitude manifests itself in every aspect of Berlin life, from its striking, ultra-modern architecture to its cutting-edge nightlife. Best of all, Berlin has all the energy, diversity and dynamism of London, but with only a third of the population.
East side story
The former eastern sector of Berlin ranges from the shabby environs of Lichtenberg to the trendy gentrified areas of Friedrichshain. Either way, East Berlin provides a fascinating insight into Cold War history. A stone’s throw from Alexanderplatz station is Karl-Marx-Allee, the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) first ‘Bolshevik Boulevard’ built by then leader Erich Honecker to reflect the glories of communism. Of course, there’s no more evocative symbol of the Cold War than the Berlin Wall. Most of it was torn down in the paroxysms of excitement that greeted reunification, but a 1.5km stretch survives near the Spree River in Friedrichshain. In 1990 it was handed over to artists and turned into an all-weather exhibit, and much of the art from that period can still be seen.
Brave new world
No longer a building site or a wretched swathe of no-man’s land, Potsdamer Platz is now a brave new world of gleaming glass towers and entertainment centres. Not only is it a testament to Berlin’s ability to rise from the rubble, it is the result of years of planning in an attempt to knit the city back together. Critics have slammed its perceived sterility, but catch it in a certain late afternoon light and it is strangely beautiful, bringing Fritz Lang’s 1927 landmark film Metropolis to mind. The post-reunification building boom saw the erection of many ultra-modern buildings which have transformed Berlin’s cityscape forever. Even some of Berlin’s more venerable structures have been given a contemporary twist. The Reichstag is a case in point. Originally designed by Paul Wallot in 1894, it was updated in 1999 by architect Lord Foster, who was appointed to restore the building as a parliamentary facility. He added the futuristic-looking glass dome which is now a major tourist draw. If you can be bothered queuing for half an hour, it’s free to visit and definitely worth a gander.
Worth a look
Fernsehturm – TV Tower
This cartoonish throwback to the ’60s once represented the pinnacle of the GDR’s technological prowess. Now it’s a popular tourist attraction which, at 368 metres high, affords great views of the city in all its post-Wall glory.
A must-see is this warren of nine interlinking courtyards in Berlin’s Jewish quarter. Dating back to the 1900s and beautifully decorated with elegant ceramic facades, they are now home to shops, galleries, theatres restaurants and cafés.
Housed in the Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz is this beautifully designed museum dedicated to the history of German cinema. Check out the stunning, mind-bending hall of mirrors as you enter, and pay particular attention to the exhibits devoted to Leni Riefenstahl, Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich.
Alison Grinter travelled to Berlin with Opodo. Additional information supplied by Lonely Planet.