Berlin Days

Berlin is a city in constant flux. If you were there five years ago, then you would no longer recognize the place. All types of modern architecture are springing up and replacing old tenements that were decaying from East German neglect.

Familiar landmarks, such as the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag (albeit with a new modern glass dome), are still there, but with the new modern buildings there is a real sense of modernity and vitality to the city. As you wander through the streets you are aware of a city that has one eye on the future, but also an eye cast back to its past, both the former glory days and to the days of infamy during Hitler’s regime.

Some of the buildings and monuments of the golden era of Germanic history long before the World Wars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are still intact. Some have been painstakingly restored after they were damaged during the World Wars.

The great baroque Prussian palace, Schloss Charlottenburg, the restored Berliner Dom (cathedral) and the monuments that flank Unter den Linden, which was the main street in the time of Frederick the Great, are an important part of any tour itinerary of the city.

The most memorable monuments are to the terrible history of the city and how the Berliners have paid tribute to the events of the World Wars. The partially bomb destroyed grand Kaiser-Wilhelm church on Ku’damm, the main shopping thoroughfare, is particularly poignant as it will never be restored to its original form.

The Jewish Museum with its innovative Star of David design is an architectural treasure and shows modern Germans have not forgotten the victims of the Nazi regime. It is a fitting tribute to the atrocities and has been widely acclaimed as one of the most successful feats of modern building in the last decades. Contrary to what the architect wanted and better wisdom, the museum curators have had to fill it with stuff when the emptiness of the space was what was so special about it.

Remnants of the Berlin wall on sale everywhere and the huge poster of the young soldier in East German uniform at Checkpoint Charlie are now part of our modern history, but hark back to a not too distant past of the cold war. Berlin is a lived in museum to the division of Europe and many of the old people living in the city may have lived, and some still do, in the ugly apartment blocks that are being slowly replaced in the poorer areas of the former communist areas.

Potsdamer Platz is a prototype for the new Berlin with the iconic cluster of skyscrapers already a city landmark. The location of the infamous Hitler’s bunker and where he allegedly took his last evil breadth has been transformed from a decaying heap of rubble into a showcase of modern architecture.

The Sony Center with its bars and cafes and the new cinema museum is its epicenter and positively buzzes of an evening. The roof of the complex changes colour constantly from a cool blue to vibrant pink, which projects a strange colour cast down on the diners below. The epitome of architectural innovation is the encasement in glass of the old Grand Hotel Esplanade even if only a little of the original building remains. You feel like you are getting a view through a window into a bygone era – a time of great splendour.

The best views of the city are had from the top of the Fernsehturm television tower with its revolving restaurant.

From a whole host of major museums and art galleries to the opera or a concert treat at the Berliner Philarmonie (an attractive yellow building), you will never exhaust all the opportunities for cultural entertainment in Berlin.

There is even good comedy as the satirical cabaret is a cherished local institution, but you would want to have a good grasp of German and the local political scene to really get the jokes. Street art is also big in Berlin and as you wander about you will see many bears, the city emblem, immortalized in plastic in various shapes and forms.

When you get tired of creaking your neck to wonder at the wonderful feats of ancient and modern construction and have had a cultural overload, you can always head off to one of the bierkellers to drink some of the world famous German nectar from a Stein glass that you will be barely able to lift. The best places for a night out in the famous bars.

Transport is very good around the city and it needs to be as the suburban spread is quite extensive. For some of the sights you will have to use the efficient U or S bahn underground system, especially if you want to head out to Potsdam to see the summer and winter gardens at Sanssouci. But the very centre is quite compact and you wander about quite comfortably if you get those walking boots on. There is plenty of greenery about and the Tiergarten is a pleasant place to escape for a few hours.

Traditional German food is not great for the vegetarian, unless you are really obsessed with sauerkraut (pickled cabbage). Pigs knuckle with mustard, liver with onions and apple and smoked pork are some local Berlin dishes. Germans love their bit of sausage and the famed wiener was ‘invented’ in the city. The gigantic buckworst sausage is also a local delicacy. But nothing gets the digestive juices of a local Berliner going more than a currywurst (a sausage smothered in a thick hot curry sauce) washed down with the hair of the dog.

In most German cities, Berlin especially, there is a considerable variety of ethnic choice in your dining and so you wont starve if you are dietarally challenged in any way. If you can get your sensitive Irish stomach through the main course of a meal, then the afters are an absolute orgiastic delight.

You cannot go wrong (except with any waistline restriction strategy) with the delicious variety on offer. If you just want to look and not touch, visit the huge multistorey superstore Ka De We where there is a whole floor dedicated to pastried delights.

Conor Caffrey is a travel writer and photographer.


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