Monday, 24 September 2012

Berlin tales

It’s impossible to represent Berlin with pretty and colourful images only – the big green parks, imposing historic buildings - though these are there ... for instance on Museum Island ...
... an extraordinary collection of five massive museums bisected by the Spree river, where in August people were enjoying sunshine and music on the lawns outside stately buildings. 

Altes (old) Museum, top, and Deutsche Historische Museum, below

The Berlin Philarmonie and the baroque Berliner Dom (cathedral - top picture and below) are here too, (though all have had to be reconstructed after being destroyed by bombing in the war) - reminders that this city is the heart in many ways of German art and culture. 

(This lady had the right idea on a hot day, kicking off her shoes and stepping into the cool fountain - I was very tempted to do the same)

This is only part of the picture, though. Berlin is where the ideologies of Nazism, communism, social democracy and capitalism have made their mark and are all still visibly present.

Above and below are some of the bewildering melange of images I picked up from Berlin's streets: support for imprisoned Russian activists, girl punk band Pussy Riot vies with the symbol of Russia's former might, the giant Red Army soldier at the Soviet War Memorial; a luxury store's billboard for Lady Gaga's new perfume near a bleak remnant of the Wall; neo-classical facades and statues that have somehow survived the conflicts of the 20th century alongside shiny new government and commercial buildings (and the Berliner Morgenpost which has been reporting it all since 1898) ...

The Wall is of course the first thing that comes to mind visiting here.  Although only fragments of it remain, it seems to have a kind of ghostly presence still. Maybe this is partly because the contrast between east and west is still in evidence.

Here in the east, mile upon mile of plattenbaue still exist – the severe, factory-made apartment blocks favoured by the Communist government - along with symbolic reminders everywhere of the old GDR. 

Alexander Platz is the heart of the former East Berlin with the landmark TV tower, showcase of the GDR ... 

Karl Marx Allee and Alexander Platz U-Bahn

It’s not pretty, for sure, but the most interesting art, music and cultural events happen here and there’s an edginess, a sense of reclaiming the past that was stunningly evident, for example, in the hotel I stayed in … 

Photos from above collage:

Soho House is in the east, a stone’s throw from the Alexander Platz - a vast Bauhaus building that previously served as the headquarters of the East German communist party. Walking along its wide, generously proportioned corridors with rich wooden floorboards, it was fascinating to think that the hotel rooms, behind solid carved doors would have been the offices of the ruling party.

On the second floor the original Politburo is now a trendy bar and club-room, still called the ‘Politburo’ - I loved the sense of reappropriation.

Walking into my studio-apartment room (above) was like stepping into a period film set, with 1930s and 40s touches everywhere – the radio, Bakelite telephones, leather bound books and crystal decanters on the drinks tray. 

Style and striking aesthetics are also a feature of the interiors of cafés, restaurants and shops ...

... and the Literaturhaus in the western district of Charlottenburg was a brilliant find - a wonderful cafe with a terrace overlooking this garden in a quiet street off the mega-shopping avenue of Kurfurstendamm. I sat here for an hour reading Berlin Tales,  picked up in the excellent bookshop on site, enjoying the garden, drinking tea ...

... and did I really eat that whole apfelstrudel?

How to get a handle on Berlin? The intrigue of this huge, fragmented city derives partly from its many conflicting aspects and the stories behind them. It's not a beautiful or a romantic city, but it's a totally fascinating one.  

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