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Berlin - A City United

Two decades after the Wall came down Malcolm Handley finds the German capital transformed

Written by . Published on September 24th 2012.

Berlin - A City United

I FIRST visited Berlin in 1990, a few weeks after the Wall came down and I could feel the celebration, relief, achievement and anticipation – as if a first dramatic step had been taken and anything was possible. There was also a sense of uncertainty and anxiety that the first step was into a world unknown.

As an outsider there was a sense of exhilaration and some excitement that an ugly but deeply significant symbol had been destroyed but for some locals there was anxiety about where, when and how fast this “stride to freedom” was going to take the city and its people.

Returning, I can barely visualise just how big the task was and how the city and people have embraced the new role – yet, after a few strides along its streets you discover that Berlin is now a vibrant, confident city at the heart of Europe. It is full of bustle, trade and the rich echoes of foreign languages, illustrating its strength as Germany’s top visited tourist destination. 

Berlin is now a city united – united by its confidence, superb architecture, fine restaurants and bars, museums and memorials, many marking the steps in its history of change.

Potsdamer PlatzPotsdamer Platz

Some may have been unpleasant to face - but faced they have been and the city seems richer for that and now, with a new, full-service Lufthansa schedule linking Manchester to Berlin, this vibrant capital is just a couple of hours away.
There should have been a new multi-million Euro airport out at Brandenberg to further entice you but, in a rare – rare but rather large – example of German inefficiency, it is still not complete some months after target. Still Tegel is a friendly airport, closer to the city and Lufthansa is comfortable with that.

One of Berlin’s great attractions is that its city centre is walkable with much to see – and there are any number of roadside cafes, restaurants and bars to break the journey, to people watch or simply soak up the atmosphere.

Many of the shops have the Berlin touch. The windows of Fassbinder & Rauch at the Gendarmenmarkt have the finest chocolate displays. Walk through its doors to taste rich, indulgent, irresistibly outrageous luxury. Go early in your visit... to leave enough time to go again. Then find somewhere to sample a Berlin obsession, currywurst. But for a more substantial lunch visit ChenChe, Rosenthaler Strasse, excellent Eastern food in a delightful setting near historic Rosenthaler Platz.

Checkpoint CharlieCheckpoint Charlie

If you are seeking a unique Berlin souvenir, head for Potsdamer Strasse to the site of the famous, or is that infamous, Checkpoint Charlie, the one-time border between East and West Berlin. It was a border of inconvenience and danger, welcomed by many but loathed by most. For a couple of euros you can have your passport stamped with all those crucial visas you would have needed to cross from West to East. Make sure you have a spare page.  There are around 10 stamps to accommodate. They will stamp an official looking piece of paper if you prefer.

If you intend spending a few days in Berlin choose a hotel with a local flavour. Maritim has two hotels in the city. It is Germany’s largest privately owned operator but here retains a distinctly Berlin feel. I stayed at the Maritim Berlin Hotel on Stauffenbergstrasse (which, as the name suggests, has its own darkly historical link) near the city‘s Tiergarten. It has a great restaurant and on no account miss the famed Maritim breakfast.

Brandenburg GateBrandenburg Gate – iconic monument

Among the not-to-be-missed sights are the Reichstag and the Brandenberg Gate, which is also close to the line of the Wall. These two buildings define the new Berlin as they did the old – monuments with a history equal to their size.

The Reichstag was Germany’s seat of Government before the war, then Bonn briefly took that mantle for West Germany. Now it is in its rightful place in the capital and superbly rebuilt to a sympathetic design by Sir Norman Foster, merging old and new with seamlessly elegance. Brandenberg Gate’s triumphal arch, looks all the all the more imposing without the Wall as a backdrop even if some of the more recent additions near by are not quite up to scratch.

Walk down toward the UNESCO site of Museum Island in the River Spree. Marvel at Berliner Dom, and church of St Nicholas, the five museums and, nearby, across Unter den Linden, is Bebelplatz, the scene of 20,000 books were burned by the Nazis in 1933. A strikingly simple monument marks the place – a below ground room with a series of empty book shelves and close by, the words of poet Heinrich Heine, “Wherever books are burnt, people are burnt, too.”

Reichstag, BerlnReichstag – superbly rebuilt

Heine, along with Marx and Goethe, was among the authors targeted in the symbolic cultural vandalism. The State Opera and beautiful St Hedwig’s Cathedral are also in the square. Then walk back across the city to the Holocaust Memorial – or to give it its full title, Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe – and nearby museum. It’s simplicity is eerily powerful. A deafeningly quiet and memorable experience.

Berlin is not just a city of monuments and history. It has vibrant night life and enough upmarket shopping streets to make your feet and wallet ache.

For something out of the ordinary, take a trip to the bohemian-scene in Kreuzberg’s Media Spree or to the Mitte district’s latest hot-spots – there is something to suit all tastes.

Ganymed Brasserie, Berlin

With a Gastro Rallye tour you enjoy a different course at each restaurant involved and get an insider’s view on the contemporary fine dining and cultural scene in the city. You will discover something different, alternative or just quirky and experience glamorous – and some not so glamorous – locations between each course. A chance to take in the street art, local characters and atmospheric locations away from the tourist trail.

If you have the time, do travel out to the South West of Berlin to the Wannsee. Enjoy lunch at the Loretta am Wannsee beer garden and restaurant and sample the local Weissbier. Wannsee is almost completely surrounded by lakes and the River Havel. If you fancy a slice of peace or a short break from Berlin’s busy districts, this is the place to go.

October is a great time to visit Berlin – it is a month of celebrations with something for everyone to enjoy.

Fact file

Getting there:
Lufthansa’s fares from Manchester start from £39 one way and £79 return including all taxes & charges. www.lufthansa.com

UK travellers have voted Lufthansa as their favourite short haul leisure airline in the Condé Nast Traveller 15th Annual Readers’ Travel Awards, awarding the airline top marks for punctuality, efficiency, service and staff.

Staying there:
Maritim Hotel Berlin, from £135 for a double room with breakfast. www.maritim.com

For further information see the German National Tourist Office. www.germany.travel

Fassbinder & Rauch Chocolate, Gendarmenmarkt www.fassbender-rausch.com
ChenChe, Rosenthaler Strasse www.chenche-berlin.de
Gastro Rallye www.gastro-rallye.com/Berlin

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