under the linden trees


Berlin is an old city, but has very little in the way of old buildings. The reasons are obvious – bombing round the clock from the west, two and a half million tooled up Reds pushing in from the east, and fifty years of post-war neglect and depression (far more pronounced east of the Wall) – but it means that anything more than seventy years old and not showing the scars is something important to Berliners, important enough to be repaired and renewed. The Reichstag, with its new glass dome over its old stone facade, has endured fire and artillery, regime change and street fights, thousand-pounders and iconoclastic modern architects; it has been almost destroyed from the inside and the outside, but it has been brought back. The graffiti scrawled by Russian soldiers has been left on its stonework, but the bullet holes have been made good, and DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE is still clear above the main entrance.

From the Reichstag we walked back to the Brandenburg Gate, which looked very different in the bright light of day, surrounded by embassies and merchant banks that infest that end of Unter den Linden like the sparrows infest all of Berlin. Sitting in Pariser Platz, deaf-mute (or so they claimed) women with clipboards came up to us to beg money and signatures for some purported petition. A man in 19th century clothing with ferocious facial tattoos set up a barrel organ and cranked the handle. Tiring of the Gate, the sunlight and the constant solicitations, we walked off past the Holocaust memorial, its thousands of irregular concrete stelae surprisingly free of gay men taking Grindr selfies (as far as we could tell.) Walking across the undulating cobbles of its floor, boxed in by high, varied but faceless cuboids, I felt some of the threat the sculptor was apparently trying to convey.

At a roadside cafe, we wolfed down nondescript meat brought to us by a bitchy waitress, regrouped with Kirsten and headed on into the park. Tiergarten, like so many things in Europe, is bigger than it looks on the map; we passed the memorial to the gay victims of the Holocaust (a shapeless modern-art chunk with a black and white peep show of same-sex kisses), passed a display of attractively sculpted rocks supposedly symbolising of love and peace, passed a three-faced statue of composers accompanied by displays about its restoration from wartime devastation.
There’s a huge Soviet war memorial, built almost immediately after the war on what was then Charlottenberg Chaussee but became the decidedly anti-Soviet Strasse des 17 Juni after the strike in the fifties. Early-mark T-34s and howitzers stand on granite plinths overlooking the street, and an enormous bronze Ivan, forbidding in his greatcoat and winter cloak, stands in the centre of a colonnade of cenotaphs marked with the insignia of various branches of the Red war machine. Behind it, part of an all-weather exhibit about war dead, an early photo of the memorial shows it towering above a thoroughly denuded Tiergarten, the city on the horizon wrecked beyond imagining.
We headed on towards the centre. A caravan of Trabants, coughing out clouds of stinking grey fumes, bore their whooping passengers past towards the tower.

The Siegessäule, the huge Victory Tower in the centre of Tiergarten, was commissioned to commemorate Prussia’s victory in one war, but by the time it was finished they’d gone and won two more wars and founded an empire. It makes for a lovely metaphor for the now-abolished state: it’s very impressive, it’s a bit up itself, it’s militaristic, its glory days are a long way behind it, it’s battle-damaged, and the French have been trying to nick parts of it for ages. The bronzes around its base, of various great victories (principally against the French) are riddled with bullet holes, and pieces of them still haven’t been returned by the Frenchmen who appropriated them in ’45 (and had to be talked out of demolishing the entire thing, the petulant sods); but the huge, beautiful mosaic on the first floor gallery has been lovingly restored. The statuesque figure of Germania stares down at gorgeously dressed soldiers, princes and heralds of victory; Germanic warriors down the ages and muscular, idealised workers stand in support of bearded modern soldiers in pickelhaubes and Prussian blue as they fix bayonets and raise their Dreyse rifles against the horrific figures of death, war, famine, pestilence and the French. Across the road, huge classical statues of Roon, Moltke and Bismarck look admiringly on.
Inside the base of the tower, there’s an exhibit about monuments in general, with miniatures of foreign ones to appeal to the tourists and maps of various huge memorials (you’d be amazed how many monuments to Kaiser Bill, Bismarck or the greater glory of the Reich are actually about peace, love, unity and general good acceptable 21st century things). At the top of the tower, beneath the skirts of the great golden statue of Victory, is a viewing platform; puffing a little from the ascent, we found it uncomfortably packed, but the views were incredible, and with the absurd paparazzi-tier lens of Bill’s camera we picked out the flakturm peeking from behind Humboldthain, the old Allied listening station on Teufelsberg, the glittering domes of the Doms, the mongrel architecture of central Berlin.

We went back to Bill’s and lunched on the marinaded chicken you can buy at Lidl for a couple of euros, with beans and egg fried rice. His sublet is under the flight path for Tegel airport, and every few minutes conversation was washed out by the thunderous bellow of turbofans a few hundred metres up. Then it was the cheery yellow U-bahn to Tempelhof, no barriers at the stations or ticket collectors on the warm but uncrowded trains. I gather that parts of the Berlin transport system are having major funding problems; it’s not really hard to see why.

Tempelhof was the great Nazi airport of the thirties and beyond, but planes don’t fly there any more; after its final closure six years ago, the immense aerodrome was designated a pleasure park, and the wide windswept expanse is gradually being reclaimed by allotments, sunbathers and rollerbladers. On fixie bikes borrowed for €4 from some little hippy bike collective in the cobbled streets east of the airport, we cycled down a taxi-way to the fenced-off terminal building, still monolithic and invincibly grandiose, and back up the main runway in the bright summer sun. It was all utterly beautiful and utterly satisfying; it lived up to all the childhood fantasies of being given a pair of wheels and an unlimited expanse of good paving and told to just go wild. Very highly recommended.

Some fancy pizza later, the return ride to the bike place marred a little by cobbles (who ever thought they were a good idea?), we headed off to the Oscar Wilde, an Irish pub on Friedrichstrasse, for a fairly hardcore pub quiz with my old uni pal Eddi and her hunky German boyfriend. We didn’t win, but we had a good time, and everyone knows that’s what counts.


hallo aus Berlin

The trip to Berlin did not begin auspiciously. Getting to Gatwick on the Tuesday felt like hitting every red light in London; Tower Bridge was open to let a big Norwegian ferry through as I tried to cross, leaving me out in burning sun for fifteen minutes. Somewhere around East Croydon, the train was held up for three quarters of an hour thanks to someone jumping in front of a train. Most unhelpfully, just as I was getting off at Gatwick station, I got a sudden email from Easyjet saying that my plane had been cancelled.

Their website offered me a reschedule to Southend airport the following day – hoping I could negotiate, I queued to see the single solitary man at the Gatwick customer service desk. He – looking dispiritedly at an increasingly long queue of angry Germans – offered me a transfer to a flight on Friday. I took what the website was offering.

Ho hum.

The following day, after a considerably earlier start, things went better. The trains to Southend ran smoothly, and on approach I noticed a – the – Vulcan bomber out on the tarmac, cockpit shrouded in green tarps like a falcon’s hood. Moving in on foot through the car park to investigate, I made the happy discovery of a small greasy spoon called “The Lancaster”, and had a very nice sausage-bacon-and-chips brunch there, although I couldn’t help feeling a bit awkward looking around at all the Bomber Command themed decor knowing that I was headed to Berlin. Security was a breeze, the person booked in next to me cancelled so I got a window seat, and Easyjet have finally realised that flight mode actually does something and let you use it rather than insisting that everything be switched off. Eighty minutes after takeoff, we were descending over Brandenburg’s dark green woods, broad fields, and sweeping autobahns, the patterns of suburbia below broken by huge communist apartment blocks.

I got out at Schönefeld airport ten minutes ahead of schedule, immediately able to tell that this was once the GDR side of town; big windswept plazas with weeds growing between the tiles, and a railway station slightly too huge and slightly too bare to have been meant for humans. A terribly attractive dungareed workman on the train I boarded confirmed that it was indeed the RB14 headed for Alexanderplatz, and I was off. When we arrived, I looked up the correct phrase on my phone, and carefully wished him vielen Dank fur ihre Hilfe. He smiled and said no problem, have a nice day.

Bill met me at Alexanderplatz station, a block of shops topped by railway lines all under a huge sweeping glass arched roof, and I had my first Berliner currywurst, €2.20 for a bread roll and a tray piled with sausage and gloopy curry sauce. In the packed city square from which the station got its name, I munched them down, looking at the slowly turning World Time Clock, admiring the vast space-age spike of the Fernsehturm and watching a mechanical dragon rear up and breathe fire. We took the U-bahn to Bill’s sublet on Provinzstrasse, via an Aldi for necessary supplies: 1) gin and 2) tonic.

Having unpacked and had a drink, we hopped back on the U-Bahn and set out to wander Berlin in the gloaming. We took in the Gendarmenmarkt, its huge neoclassical Konzerthaus flanked by the gorgeous Französischer and Deutscher Doms, a pair of cathedrals matched in overall layout but differing in the detail; we’d missed the open hours of Fassbender & Rausch the chocolatier, but looked in some wonder at a chocolate Titanic, chocolate Reichstag and chocolate Brandenburg Gate through the window.

The overall architecture of the centre of town is very nice, lots of large imposing buildings and a decent overall standard; few hugely attractive buildings, but few eyesores either. At Checkpoint Charlie, information posters described the post-war history of Berlin; I knew plenty about the Airlift and the Wall, but it filled in a few other blanks. On the way to the checkpoint, we had spied an interesting looking building down one of the wide streets there, and took a long detour to examine it, taking us past a big open parking space with a whole rainbow of Trabants-for-hire. One, painted a happy leopard-print scheme, sported the vanity plate “TRABI SAFARI”. The building turned out to be the Museum für Kommunikation, an aggravatingly long German compound word picked out in LEDs on its facade, and its glorious Kaiser-era facade just that; most of the building behind the huge baroque face with its statue of Atlas had been blown away in the war, replaced by a functional but uninspired modern structure.

We ate reasonably priced noodles at a little place near Checkpoint Charlie and, getting a little footsore but still up for more exploring, headed off to Unter den Linden as the dark sky finally started spitting rain, and before taking the U-bahn home witnessed Brandenburg Gate, lit up gloriously against the rain-dark sky.