CAROLINE HURRY discovers Germany’s greenest city with 44% comprising woods, rivers, lakes and waterways
In the 1920s, culturally avant-garde Berlin was the decadent setting for Christopher Isherwood’s Cabaret, but the champagne slowed to a trickle when Hitler assumed power in 1933. By the end of World War II Berlin had more rubble than in the rest of Germany combined. For years it remained an open museum of Allied vengeance, a mutilated toothless smile. Partitioned into American, British, and French zones in the west, and a Soviet zone to the east, the three western-occupied zones became West Berlin while the Soviet-controlled zone established East Berlin as the capital of its puppet state, the German Democratic Republic.
The infamous wall separating the two sides – a concrete staggered system of four-metre-high barriers topped with barbed wire – was built in 1961. Anyone crossing beyond a certain point was shot without warning. At least 100 civilians died trying to escape. Photographs, letters and documentaries at the Checkpoint Charlie museum in Friedrich Street testify to courage and ingenuity. Women posed as wives, others hid in cars, facing certain death if discovered.
Today all that remains of the wall is the world’s longest (1.3 km) open-air concrete gallery near Ostbahnhof featuring the works of 118 artists. A grim past contrasted with a brightly painted future somehow encapsulates Berlin today.
When the wall fell, some of the world’s best architects recreated the Potsdamer Platz, transforming the surrounding area in high-rise steel and glass tributes. Roof landscapes cap office blocks and daylight drenched malls encourage browsing through a myriad boutiques. Four shopping complexes – Kurfürstendamm, Potsdamer Platz, Friedrichstrasse and Alexanderplatz – plus Berlin’s club culture all contribute to the metropolis with a population of around 3.5 million.
In this Mecca of modern architecture, Sony’s glass-fronted European headquarters topped by a huge dome, beg to be explored. If you suffer from vertigo, just whimper into the lapels of a nonplussed German gentleman in the glass lift with you. Otherwise try to appreciate the view!
Another cathedral of light and space worth visiting is the Reichstag. Its restored 19th-century shell smacks of bombastic German bureaucracy, but Sir Norman Foster’s glass dome is brilliant. Two walkways coil up to a viewing platform at the top while a central mirrored column reflects light into the debating chamber below.
The rebuilding of the former city palace in Mitte and the new development around the zoo in City-West are just another two major urban construction projects on the go.
Just 30 minutes away in the Brandenburg district, Potsdam combines modern post-war buildings and restored aristocratic residences that charm thousands of visitors every year. Here, you’ll find the elaborate Moorish mosque that disguises the waterworks for the Sans Souci fountains, the Brandenburger Tor at Platz der Nationen, and the Alexandowka, a colourful, onion-domed colony built on the instructions of Frederick William III for a Russian choir.Palaces pepper the Sans Souci Gardens laid out in the mid-18th century for Frederick the Great, though his wife, Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel-Bevern, knew him better as Frederick the Absent. He refused to live with her or even speak to her, preferring the company of his 13 whippets, 11 of which lie buried next to his tomb.
On the childless Frederick’s death, his nephew and successor built the Marble Palace featuring a gothic library, pyramid and Egyptian sphinx. Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the romantic king, built Charlottenhof and the Roman Baths. The last Prussian emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm I, built Park Babelsberg with the Castle Babelsberg overlooking the Havel River while architects Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Ludwig Persius helped create Europe’s most splendid park and castle ensemble. Potsdam’s centre around Brandenburger Strasse offers galleries, boutiques and arcades in old inner courtyards. Summer’s probably the best time to see it.