In 1963, during the cold war, John F Kennedy visited West Berlin, the former German capital which, following the division of Germany among the allies after the war, was splintered off from the West German mainland as an independent exclave deep within communist East Germany. Its citizens had endured harrowing times, not least, when in 1961, the wall was erected, topped by barbed wire and with Russian rifles trained on it, irrevocably and callously separating East from West, children from parents, brother from sister, neighbours from friends for 28 years, until it came down in the spirit of Glasnost in 1989. In his keynote speech aimed at sending a clear message to the USSR in support of Germany, he famously and to German ears amusingly, said ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. Amusing, because in German a Berliner is not so much a person from Berlin (who would be more likely to say ’Ich bin aus Berlin’) but a colloquial name for doughnut (also Krapfen or Pfannekuchen). With this, the already popstar popular and highly revered American president endeared himself forever to the German population. While the average post war Germans never much cared for the French and Russian occupying forces with whom there was always some sort of border issue, they positively adored the Americans and Brits for liberating them from Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and literally giving them back their lives.
After the dreaded wall fell in the late eighties, Berlin was reinstated as Germany’s capital and the drab former East German half of the city along with the rest of previously communist East Germany was sanitized and restored back to its former historic glory. Unlike the other major German cities, Anglophile elegant Hamburg, traditional, chic Munich or the sleek financial hub of Frankfurt, all of which retain just the slightest whiff of Germanic provinciality, Berlin these days is a throbbing, edgy metropolis, stimulating, innovative and great fun.
As a small child growing up in Northern Germany, in fact only a few kms from the border to the East, I remember well my tremendous fear that the Russians would invade over night, build another wall and separate me from my Mummy. In the small Harz mountain town I lived in then, we would frequently hear reports of people, mostly young men, who had tried to flee the Communist regime and who got shot and killed in the mine filled no man’s land between East and West. Rarely, someone would successfully make it and subsequently received a hero’s welcome from our small community. Later when I was at university in Hamburg, we often braved the then five or six hour car trip to Berlin through East Germany to visit other studenty friends. This involved being stopped and thoroughly frisked at the border by severe looking, goose stepping East German militia, with mirrors pushed under the car and invariably the boot being virtually dismantled. We had to be careful not to carry Western books or magazines or anything that could have been construed as Western propaganda and every time, we held our breath and hoped border control would not find anything about us, the boys’ long hair perhaps or our Carlos Santana tapes, that would merit an arrest. Secretly though, and quite daringly, we used to bring in Levi’s to give to East German adolescents who were gagging for Western fashion as much as for West German currency. Then, through Checkpoint Charlie and on to wild student parties and heavy drinking in funky West Berlin with our friends. Literally living on the edge, the Berlin youth lived life as though there would be no tomorrow and, of course, nobody knew then whether there would be or whether the powerful Russians would gobble up this Western outpost at the drop of a Kalashnikov. It was a scary, exhilarating experience. These days, the Berlin area of Kreuzberg is super trendy but back then it was deeply working class with a large contingent of Turkish immigrants, the buildings with their innumerable inner courtyards, grey and dilapidated, but offering up super cheap student digs, edgy art galleries, exotic kebab shops, dingy transvestite bars, dark cellar clubs with pulsing music, antiquarian bookshops with inflammatory material and a, in Germany so unusual, multi cultural mix. We were in our element, returning to refined, conservative Hamburg after weekends of high octane revelries.
Almost exactly nine years ago, the lovely husband and I, mindful of the complications associated with our ‘blended’ families at home in London, chose Berlin and, in fact, a Michelin starred restaurant in Kreuzberg, to hold our wedding party to which we invited all our German friends who joined us from far and wide. Despite heavy summer rain, the evening was a resounding success and, once again, a truly memorable experience; that Berlin party spirit still going strong after all those years and not remotely encumbered by the calmer post wall era.
So, fast forward to the present;just a few weeks ago I felt the familiar Berlin urge coming on. Thoughts of catching up with dear friends, two lots of them long-timers, one a new one made more recently during my time in Baku, prompted me to cash in some air miles and hop on the one hour 40 minute flight from London Heathrow to Berlin Tegel, the brilliantly located mid city airport which seems under permanent threat of relocation to Berlin’s other airport, further out, Shoenefeld. In the blink of an eye, I found myself in my friend’s stunningly well restored, spacious, light and generously laid out period apartment, with oversized palatial double doors, enormous light infusing windows and shiny pale honey coloured parquet floors, bang in the centre of Berlin, just off the famous long shopping street, the Kurfuerstendamm
This time, staying as I was in the home a young family, I saw Berlin from an altogether new perspective. Rather than revisiting the sights, meandering around galleries or enjoying the International shopping opportunities which I had done on plenty of occasions previously, it was the different charming residential neighbourhoods that had me completely enthralled. Lovely Charlottenburg with its elegant period houses, peaceful and green Westend with its tasteful new housing developments, fabulously atmospheric Prenzlauer Berg with its many small cafes, independent boutiques, flea and farmers’ markets and edgy Friedrichshain. An Anglo German couple who have been my friends for nigh on 40 years inhabit a super chic ultra modern penthouse apartment there, which is surrounded by a higgledy-piggledy mix of high end specialist delis and wine outlets, and little old graffiti daubed corner shops. You know the type, they sell bits and bobs that honestly only really old grannies would buy, things like rattling glow in the dark alarm clocks, nylon coiffure shoulder protectors, tartan rubber soled slippers and the like. It’s all very Berlin!
Synonymous with the accommodation culture of Berlin is the ‘Hinterhof’, the courtyard enclosed on all four sides by apartment buildings forming a block. Some building arrangements even have several such inner courtyards. Traditionally these were used for the apartment block community to hang their washing, let their children play safely, supervised from the balconies above, and residents to interact with each other. In the old days, when the Bourgeoisie lived in elegant villas on the verdant edges of Berlin, say in the Grunewald Forest, for instance, it was the poor and rough working class who were housed here, often in Dickensian squalor. The Hinterhof was their home hub and a hive of activity, frequently visited by organ grinders with monkeys for cheap entertainment. Nowadays, of course, with the gentrification of much of the inner city, the organ grinders have disappeared and these courtyards have been transformed to tranquil oases with flowers and smart little outdoor seating areas for the residents.
It was a sweltering 36 degrees in Berlin and strange to see the efficient forward planning Germans (Vorsprung durch Technik!) displaying the 2015 winter collection of heavy dark woolens and warm winter clothing fit to ward off the occasional Siberian winds which pelt the city in winter, in the shop windows, while all around people were dressed in the barest minimum to cope with the steamy heat. Luckily, this is a city full of wonderfully large mature trees wherever you go, so it was easy and pleasant to move from shady island to shady island. Almost every street, however small, seems to have at least one little al fresco café or juice bar, sometimes with as few as three small tables under sun umbrellas, all with delightful unexpected little touches of some sort, abundant flowers, perhaps, or painted walls, or just exquisite homemade cakes and biscuits on offer.
One of such super cute establishments we visited was Poulette in Prenzlauer Berg, very close to the old water tower, the emblem of that area, where they served a home baked bread with a kind of cocktail sauce dipping arrangement, a very tasty slice of quiche Lorraine with salad and a quite incredible cheese cake. With water and a coffee, we paid €20 for lunch. (Poulette, Knaackstrasse 30, 10405 Berlin, Tel.: (0)30 4403 8012, www.poulette.de) Another was tiny weeny Early Bean Café on delightful Meyerinck Platz in Charlottenburg (so small that I can’t find contact details for it) which serves a mean freshly pressed apple, ginger and cucumber juice (and other combos, of course) and great coffee. Both were perfect to while away part of the afternoon, relaxing and people watching. The small Saturday artisan produce and product market at Kollwitz Platz in Prenzlauer Berg was enchanting to meander around and sample exquisite local honey, delicious cheeses and homemade fruit lemonades, all organic and ecologically sourced, as well as cottage industry made baby and adult clothes.
Germans are pretty direct at the best of times and, come hell or high water, feel morally obliged to give you their very honest opinion, even if they haven’t known you for more than five minutes, but people from Berlin take this a step further, proud of their nationally well-known cheeky chappy image, the ‘Berliner Schnauze’ (Berlin gob). This, however, seems to give some the licence to be so abrupt and outspoken, that they well overstep the boundaries of politeness. It certainly takes some getting used to! When I had a taxi driver take me to an address located within a garden complex involving walking from the road drop-off point to one of several entrances leading to various different low slung apartment blocks, I checked with him before I paid, that this was indeed the right path for me to follow to get to a particular apartment. He rolled his eyes, sighed exaggeratedly and then said in not so dulcit Berlin tones ‘Honestly woman, would I drop you off here if the address was down the road? Do I look stupid or what?’ An unwise comment, I’d say. Not surprisingly, his intended tip dropped straight back into my purse!
While I’m happily gossiping and generalising about Berliners, I might as well tell you about their complete individuality cult. More, I think, than anyone else I have ever met, they seem obsessed with being ‘different’ and determined to make their mark by being a little unpredicatable and off-centre. This, for some reason, results in an extraordinary number of middle aged women with deep wine red hair, presumably thinking that they all stand out from the crowd. Who guessed? And, to top it all, dress is always casual, invariably in muted colours, beiges, browns, greys, navy and black, and enhanced with those crepe soled super comfortable broad fitting flat shoes. A uniform, really, and so much for individuality!
I could not possibly be in Berlin without visiting one of the world’s most fabulous department stores, the famous Kaufhaus des Westens, more usually know as KaDeWe (pronounced ‘Kah-Day-Vey’) on Kurfuersten Damm. It completely puts Harrods, Harvey Nichols or Saks Fifth Avenue in the shade, marrying up its classic 1930s exterior with a sympathetic and well presented interior. Its food department is vast and something else, altogether, just walking through makes you salivate uncontrollably. Well almost. There is nothing you can’t get here, from every day food shopping to serious specialist culinary items. (KaDeWe Berlin, Tauentzienstrasse 21-24, 10789 Berlin, www.kadewe.de)
Also just off the Kurfuerstendamm, or Kudamm as it’s known for short, almost beside the ruin of Kaiser Wilhelm Church which stands as a poignant memorial to WWII, is the listed Bikini House, an alternative and modernist shopping mall with unusual, pared down retail outlets and giant wooden boxes showcasing interesting new products. Incorporated into the building, is the very funky, super contemporary 25 Hours Hotel, atop which is the trendy Monkey Bar with impressive panoramic views over the Berlin Zoo and especially its monkey enclave, and the Berlin skyline. A wrap around glass balcony, smart but uncomplicated furniture, cool chill out music and a tempting menu of bar snacks, cocktails and juices make this a perfect all day and evening venue to take in Berlin from a bird’s eye view. (Bikini House, Budapester Strasse, www.bikiniberlin.de , Monkey Bar at 25 Hours Hotel www.25hours-hotel.com).
In line with many other large cities, and thoroughly conscious of the environment – nobody is as admirably devoted to rubbish separation as the Germans! – the Berliners have several clever car club schemes. Drive Now www.de.drive-now.com is a car sharing outfit which exclusively hires out latest model BMWs and Minis within the inner overland train circuit in Berlin. Once registered, you consult the DriveNow app on your phone to find the nearest location of the BMW or Mini you desire, with more than 1000 such cars available invariably parked very close by, and once you reserve it, you have 30 minutes to gain access with your club membership card which also acts as car key. As soon as you reach your destination, you park and terminate the contract which runs by the minute at €0.26, insurance and petrol included. Then, when you want to drive back home, you go through the same process again. Easypeasy and probably very much cheaper than running your own car, so it’s a no brainer, not to mention fantastic fun whizzing around a summery Berlin in a convertible Mini! Quite, quite wunderbar!
Three days on and it was time for me to wave Auf Wiedersehen and return home to kith and kin in London but not before we all gathered together for an enjoyable, relaxed farewell meal at popular Italian deli restaurant Bertolini in Charlottenburg (Bertolini, Grolmannstrasse 22, 10623 Berlin, Tel. (0)30 8103 5196, www.bertolini-feinkost.de). Food was hearty, well presented and of tip top quality, service was good too, the very decent house wine went down extremely well, the company was excellent and all this served up in an entirely unpretentious but pretty pavement enoteca ambience at €135 for five people, including waters and coffees.
The Cold War is thankfully over and has been usurped by the crisis in the Middle East. Berlin, however, roughly equidistant between Amsterdam and Warsaw, Copenhagen and Prague, remains a city on the threshold between Western and Eastern Europe. Its chequered history from almost complete annihilation during the 30 years war in the early 1600s to powerful seat of German emperors , from navel of the world during the Roaring Twenties to Nazi HQ just a decade later, from isolated exclave on the brink of being swallowed up by a communist regime to fascinating International metropolis of the 21st century, it has been forced to continually reinvent itself. Genuinely multicultural, approx. one third of its 3.5 million population are first generation immigrants from around the globe. Today it is the beating European heart for the creative industries, the high tech sector, biotechnology and all things cutting edge and, combined with its rich cultural heritage, presents residents and visitors with an exciting variety of thrilling surprises. And, of course, plenty of doughnuts too! As the old tourist slogan goes: ‘Berlin ist eine Reise wert!’ ‘Berlin is always worth a journey!’