Back to Berlin
Revisiting Berlin as it celebrates 30 years since the collapse of the Wall, Jeffrey Mills finds a vibrant city to fascinate all walks of life
April 21 2020
BY JEFFREY MILLS
When I first visited Berlin back in the late 1970s, I thought it was one of the most exciting cities I had ever seen. It still is.
At the time, years before its infamous Wall was breached in 1989 and then demolished a year later, the city’s centre was firmly in the west, in the area around the Kurfürstendamm – or “Ku’Dam”, as it’s known. This was where everyone went to shop, eat, drink and enjoy life. The restaurant food may have been underwhelming, but the bars were fun to visit and there were still plenty of cabaret clubs to be found – as well as more exotic entertainments.
Fast-forward to the present, and Berlin was top of the list when two friends – one a journalist and restaurant critic, one a military historian – and I were choosing the location for our annual trip to visit scenes of significant military action. Essentially an excuse for the three of us to spend a few days eating and drinking, with some history and sightseeing thrown in, these have become known as our “Atrocity Tours”. And Berlin has seen plenty of those.
Today Berlin’s hub has moved to the eastern part of the central Mitte district, a zone that once languished behind the Wall. We stayed there, near where the western extremity of Unter den Linden, Berlin’s grandest boulevard, once marked the end of the road for East Berliners, who could do no more than gaze longingly across the border.
This area has not only become the commercial and governmental heart of Berlin, but is now also one of the most vibrant, the Stalinist-era wedding-cake style blocks having been converted into fashionable apartments. A thriving bar and restaurant scene has inevitably followed, in streets where once the only life was in the queues at the food shops.
Fancying something a bit more distinguished, we enjoyed a particularly extravagant lunch at the Adlon, Berlin’s grandest hotel (now part of the Kempinski group), whose guests, back in the day, included Greta Garbo, TE Lawrence, Charlie Chaplin, and Kaiser Wilhelm II. The food and wine is matched only by the spectacular views of the Brandenburg Gate. It was a suitable setting for us to muse upon Berlin’s dramatic history.
The city has been described as an “accidental capital”. Once a mere blip on the map, it was an obscure and modest settlement until it was turned into the capital of Prussia in 1740 by Frederick the Great. By 1871 it stood as the proud centre of the new German Reich created by Bismarck; but in 1945 it lay in ruins, with 125,000 Berliners killed, after the defeat the Third Reich.
The differences in architecture and atmosphere between the shiny, rebuilt capitalist West Berlin and the then dreary Soviet East Berlin is best illustrated from a boat tour along the city’s rivers and canals.
The River Spree threads through Berlin’s heart, and the boat takes you past the Reichstag; Schloss Bellevue; Beamtenschlange, home to the civil service; and the Siegessaule Victory Column from the Prussian era. You’ll also pass Nikolaiviertel, the ancient residential area whose seamless refurbishments in the GDR era have made it difficult to make out the total devastation this city once sustained.
History buffs hoping for a tour of Hitler’s Chancellery and Führerbunker will be disappointed: Both sites were demolished by the Soviets in 1947 and the bunker complex is now covered by an anonymous car park. However, you can brave the tourists for a quick look at Checkpoint Charlie, the notorious crossing between East and West Berlin – but don’t linger. Instead, take a walk along what remains of the Berlin Wall, avoiding the temptation to buy a piece of it as a souvenir. Most of the genuine masonry went years ago – together with the Russian binoculars, East German cameras, and other relics of the Nazi era and Cold War, which were once offered at very cheap prices all over the city.
Do visit the Reichstag, close to the Brandenburg Gate, seat of Germany’s parliament since 1999, even though it may mean waiting in a long queue before the trek up to admire the glass-topped dome designed by Sir Norman Foster. Spending time in the spectacular Museum Island complex for some of the best culture in the city – five museums housing breath-taking collections from antiquity to the Biedermeir period – is also essential.
Hofbräu Wirtshaus: A vast, noisy beer hall on the Alexanderplatz, good for generous portions of hearty Bavarian food and drinkable beer. An inexpensive traditional experience best left to the young. (hofbraeu-wirtshaus.de)
La Soupe Populaire: New versions of classic Berlin dishes in the dramatic ‘steampunk’ setting of a historic brewery. We had cabbage salad with lard, black pudding and schnitzel – all excellent and reasonably priced. (lasoupepopulaire.de)
KaDeWe: The Kaufhaus des Westens department store has a sensational food market on the 6th floor where you can choose from one of many bars (go for the oysters), and sit all afternoon feasting. Waiters bring dishes – lobster, caviar, ham, veggie options, fish ’n’ chips, you name it – from the other counters, too. (kadewe.de/en/food-restaurants)
WHERE TO STAY
Ellington Hotel: This Bauhaus building in Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s shopping area (home to KaDeWe), was once the city’s most famous jazz hall, where Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald performed. £
Hotel am Steinplatz: An Art Nouveau gem in the upmarket Charlottenburg area, where Vladimir Nabokov, Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon once stayed. ££
Hotel Adlon: An opulent five-star Berlin landmark on the Unter den Linden, moments from the Brandenburg Gate. And yes, it has a Michelin starred restaurant. £££
Additional reporting by Damien McCrystal and Tony Torrance