|We've now visited Berlin so often that we
feel really quite at home there. Several friends have
asked our advice on how to get there and where to go, and
I've been writing and re-writing useful notes for them to
take with them. However, it makes more sense to upload
them to a web site than to keep printing them, so here
I first visited Berlin in April 1968, on a school exchange visit when I was in the 6th form. I stayed with a family in Reinickendorf and they made me incredibly welcome, taking me to see a number of sights that I keep meaning to return to, over 40 years on. Together with one of our teachers our school group crossed into East Berlin and saw the wreck of a city at first hand. Parts of it still lay in ruins, rather as if the Russians couldn't decide whether the East Germans were genuine allies or still deadly enemies. Where West Berlin was colourful, vibrant and seemed to be living as if the world might end tomorrow all life seemed to drain away as our S-Bahn crossed the Wall and we got out at Friedrichstrasse. I still remember it as a grey ghost of a place, and this was reinforced two and a half years later when I returned whilst working in West Germany.
I first returned 'post Wall' in 2002. I was speaking at a conference in the centre of West Berlin, and was lucky enough to be finished before the mid-morning break. I walked to the western end of the Strasse des 17. Juni and then turned eastwards towards the Siegesäule (Victory Column) and, beyond it, the Brandenburg Gate. That walk amounted to around four kilometres and, in the second part with the Gate steadily getting larger as I approached, I almost had to pinch myself to think that I'd shortly be walking through it. Another couple of kilometres brought me to the Cathedral, which I'd last seen as a blackened ruin fenced off from public access. On the way I passed the 'Neue Wache' where right up to the fall of the Wall East German troops had stood guard and goose-stepped around in uniforms extremely reminiscent of the Wehrmacht's. Now it had become a moving memorial to the victims of War and Tyranny, which, of course, includes those who died attempting to escape East Germany.
Now Berlin has become a very enticing place. There are all manner of beautifully restored buildings and monuments as well as the buzz of a capital city that's still reinventing itself. It's a wonderful place to eat out, especially for traditional German fare but also for modern European cuisine. To see it at its best choose either December for the Christmas markets - there are at least two dozen scattered around the city - or during the summer when life seems to move outdoors on to the streets, into the parks or on to the river.
Berlin isn't just about The Wall or the war. It was founded about 800 years ago, and although much of its historical remains were swept away by industrialisation, the megalomania of Hitler's architectural plans, the Second World War and the poverty, in all senses of the word, of the East German state, enough remains to entrance anyone with even a slight interest in history. If I couldn't live in the UK for any reason it's definitely the first city I'd consider moving to.
The details given below all arise from our personal experiences in Berlin. We've visited all the sites I've listed, stayed in all the hotels and eaten in all of the restaurants. It's been hard work, but someone had to do it ;o)