Sunday, August 23, 2009

Berlin - a City of contrasts

Our first impression of Berlin is that it is a city still struggling with its parts. There are lots of new construction projects juxtaposed with classic and beautiful architecture and with the horrid reminders of a population controlled - those ugly ugly apartment blocks. And there does not appear to be a city centre as we would all think of it.

We have finally come to accept that European living is ever so different from our Aussie way of life. If you want to live in a city, any city, then you are going to be living in an apartment. And it does not seem to be a recent phenomenom - there are many examples of beautiful old blocks of apartments that date back to the 1920s and before. You have to actually be out in rural areas before you see any number of detached houses. Even in the outer suburbs (like where we are staying in Köpernick) there are still predominantly apartments - sure, they are a bit better spaced, but still apartments nonetheless.

Roadworks are disrupting more of Berlin than perhaps in any other city we have visited with the exception of Edinburgh. Except here in Berlin they are not tackling one piece of the problem at a time, they are taking on all the city's road woes - and there are plenty!

And the woes do not end with their roads, there are pink and blue pipes criss crossing the city over our heads. The only other place we have seen this serpentine monster was in Slovakia. But these are doubly ugly as they are painted in the bright pink or blue that seems to scream 'Just look at me, I will not be hidden!'

And then there is the cancer that is eating away at some of the city's lovely architecture. It takes two forms - peeling concrete render that falls from the sides of buildings exposing their ugly brick construction like someone's underwear inadvertantly showing. And the other is the prevelance of ugly graffiti - I am not referring to the stylised artistic displays that you see sometimes, but rather to the brazen tags left by minds with too little to occupy them and no sense of value of others' property. And then there is the reminder of the ugliest time in Berlin's history - the occupation by the soviets and the wall that split a people asunder, but more on this a little later.

But there are some examples of true efforts to brighten the city's buildings - some new, others that date back before most of us will admit we can remember. There are massive redevelopment projects within the area once called no-man's land. It is these projects that has made it necessary to transport water in those painted tubes aboveground. With so much work taking place over such a large area, the water table needed to be externally balanced - hence those ugly pipes! Funny thing is that I found a site on the web dated 2006 where the writer claimed that the work would be finished and the pipes removed in time for the 2006 World Cup. Wonder what happened!!

We decided that Sunday being what it is, with free inner city parking and train and tram and bus timetables far less frequent that we would drive in. We get in without a hitch - there is hardly any traffic on the roads. On looking at where the places we wanted to visit were, we had earlier decided to get one of the hop-on hop-off buses as this would be the easiest way to get around. Frances the parking angel is working her magic again today and I get a spot (after twice around the block) only 4 spots (car spots that is) from the bus stop! And those two loops of the block - well, that was to try to work out how to get to that parking area! All one ways and diversions.

Onto the bus and with all of these trips we have done, we do a loop of the route first to orientate ourselves. We see all the landmarks that Berlin is famous for and some more:
- around Museums Island with its classical architecture and past the beautiful Berliner Dom (Protestant cathedal), St. Hedwigs-Kathedrale (St Hedwig's Catholic Cathedral) and the Rathaus
- past the Brandenburger Tor and the holocaust memorial
- out past Schloss Charlottenburg - the Charlottenburg Palace that dates back to the 17th century and is a reminder of a time when grandeur indicated your wealth and status
- the Kurfürstendamn with its amazing shopping centres,
- the world famous KaDeWe department store that has traded since 1905 and symbolised a new Berlin when it was repaired after nearly beurning to the ground in WII.
- Potsdamer Platz with its cultural area and remains of the Berlin Wall
- past the Jewish Museum with its three seperate areas
- the Gendarmenmarkt and its huge flea market that extended the length of about 4 city blocks

We nearly completed the loop! We are two stops from where we joined the bus when we realise that we have reached the Checkpoint Charlie Musuem after having just passed one of the few remaining pieces of the Wall near the Brandenburg Gate. So we dive off to take a look.

As much as anything, the Mauermuseum-Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie is a tribute to the work of one man - Rainer Hildebrandt. Just steps from the famous crossing point between the two Berlins, the Wall Museum—House at Checkpoint Charlie tells the story of the Wall and, even more riveting, the stories of those who escaped through, under, and over it. The homespun museum reviews the events leading up to the Wall's construction and, with original tools and devices, plus recordings and photographs, shows how East Germans escaped to the West. And how West Germans refused to let the wall dous their hope for a unity city.

"Checkpoint Charlie" was the last bastion between freedom in the west and the soviets controlling the east and trying to influence the west. The real checkpoint was demolished following the fall of the wall in 1989, but a copy (complete with pretend military personnel who want €1 for a photo) was rebuilt as a reminder of this terrible time. And you have to hand it to the marketing gurus in the Czech Republic, who in the street outside this copy have established their own Czech Point - their tourism office!

By the time we finish in the museum (about 2.5 hours) we realise that if we want to make the most of our ticket then we need to get the next bus back to our starting point as it is one of the last ones of the day that will do the complete route. Back on we jump when the next bus pulls in about ten minutes later. But hang on - we have already covered some of this territory - ah, there is an announcement that due to roadworks they have to divert from the normal route. Back to Alexanderplatz and the car finally and we decide to lose the backpack.

Wallets and camera only now as we walk towards the Fernsehturm TV Tower. This is the tallest structure in Berlin and is visible from most parts of the City, so we have no trouble in finding it a few blocks away - you just keep walking in the direction that allows it to get bigger and bigger the closer you go! It is a member of the World Federation of Great Towers - which includes a few Australian towers. (Click on the link if you want to know which ones!)

This is a must see for me as I love to see the city (any city) from above. It takes on surreal properties - a magical air away from the grit and grime of everyday life. Michael queues to buy tickets and I resign myself to a wait as tickets are numbered and they only allow a certain number of people to go up at a time and at the moment - according to the board that is 40 - 50 minutes away. But he rushes back, "Quick, we have to go NOW" "How?" I asked as we climb a couple of flights of stairs to the lift waiting area. "They just had two tickets cancelled as I got to the window, so we got lucky!" was the reply. Yep, lucky alright.

We get herded into the lift with about 12 other people and head for the skies at a rate of 6 m/second. Not enough to bring your stomach contents up, but easily enough for your ears to pop. We alight at the Observation Deck and fight with the hundreds of other people up here to get a space by the windows so we can take some photos. Everything radiates out from here and we can see the wide avenues that curve out from the centre and the green spaces that dot the city. There is the large green park of Große Tiergarten that reminds us of Central Park in New York - a massed planting of trees in the near centre of a concrete jungle! This is the oldest and largest green space in the city and well used by its residents.

We had earlier decided that we would have lunch/dinner at the Telecafe Restaurant here and had the most amazing meal while we were perched up here with the birds. The menu is very extensive and surprisingly more affordably priced than we had anticipated. After drooling over the contents for ages, while I sipped a Prosecco and Michael, a tonic, we settled on:
Tatar von Kalbsfleisch und Limone im Salatnest mit jungen Kapern und Balsamico-Essig (Tartare of veal and lime served with fresh lettuce, young capers and balsamic vinegar) Michael
Auswahl von Hausmacherwurst mit Krustenbrot und Gewürzgurke (A selection of home made style sausages with crusty bread and gherkins) Maria (omg can you see how big this is! Thankfully Michael helps me finish it including the tongue-wurst and another that is very offally)
Krone vom Beelitzer Kaninchen auf Kohlrabigemüse und gefüllten Rosmarinkartoffel (Crown of Beelitz rabbit on a bed of kohlrabi and stuffed rosemary potatoes) Michael
Pochiertes Jungbullenfilet auf Selleriecreme mit Perlzwiebeln und Balsamicojus (Poached filet of a young bull served with celery cream, pearl onions and Balsamico jus) Maria
Desserts: (yep,we went the full hog)
Pfirsich Melba, mal ganz anders (Peach Melba, made with a very special creamy ice-cream made from white peach and served with hot raspberries) Michael
Eisbecher „Nussgigant“ (Giant walnut and vanilla ice-cream sundae, with a nut mix, whipped cream and chocolate sauce) Maria
Herr Klöos was our waiter (didn't want to give Michael his christian name!) and was there when we needed him, and not otherwise. We felt no pressure to rush our meal which allowed us to fully appreciate the very artful way that ingredients had been combined. A fantastic meal! And we are not even going to have the conversation about whose meal was best ...

We spent a good couple of hours eating and gazing out at the diochotemy that is still Berlin. Trouble was that part way through our visit the battery one the camera gave out (well, we had taken 500+ photos!). And where was the second battery? Why, in the backpack, in the car! Oh well, just have to eke out the photos till we get back there. I just loved sitting high over the city and watching the evening's darking shadows chase the last of the golden light over the rooftops far below. Every once in a while, the sun obstinately clung to a high mast or tower or golden edge as though daring the night to close in. All too soon it was time to return to the ground level.

And as day finally turned from twilight to dark, we were lucky enough to be near the Rathaus to watch as she changed her colours for the night. We drove around for a little while trying unsuccessfully to find the Kloster ruins that we could see so clearly from above. Couldn't find them in the dying light though - will find them on Earth Google and then plot it on our map for tomorrow. So, back to the hotel, with the roadworks once again providing obstacles for Kate and I. Thankfully I have a pretty good sense of direction and so just keep driving until I think we will be passed the godawful mess! I win.

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