It’s nigh on 40 years since the BBC televised their adaptation of John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People, culmination of his trilogy about spymaster George Smiley, the squat, bespectacled antidote to the crass, cartoonish antics of James Bond. I’m all for compulsive slow burners, so I read the 1979 novel again recently before catching up with Alec Guinness as Smiley on Amazon Prime.
Le Carré, who died last December, had made Berlin his personal literary territory through 1963’sThe Spy Who Came In From The Cold, made into a movie with Richard Burton two years later. Somewhere in between the two books (and before a certain David Bowie) I lived in West Berlin and can never forget how I survived a sub-Arctic initiation, living in a Turkish quarter not far from the Wall, scene of both books’ denouements.…
It was a bitter January. I always call it my pea soup month. Each evening after work at the Bilka supermarket I stood shivering at the Imbiss at Zoo Station to eat my thick Erbsensuppe – mushy pea puree by any other name.
At weekends I treated myself to a sausage in it. I was the ultimate, penniless student in my puckering mock leather greatcoat and threadbare loon pants. The only thing I had in abundance was hair.
Finally, come February I got paid and was able to vary my diet to Currywurst with potato salad and even get to see some of the amazing city, an island of Capitalism stranded in the middle of Red East Germany – remaining so until the Wall came down in 1989 and Deutschland was reunified, the Brandenburg Gate serving as its symbolic centrepiece.
After only fleeting visits since and I’m back in the reunited capital a tourist not cultural squatter. Currywurst is now as much a Berlin icon as David Bowie, but pea soup has bitten the dust in favour of burgers and, of course, the doner kebab, created in the city by Turkish immigrant Kadir Nurman in the early Seventies (as with Bowie, we never met).
It’s a city utterly changed, obviously for the better, the axis for citizen and tourist alike shifting back to the original centre in East Berlin. There the Prussians built vast museums and monuments to their warrior culture, but I suspect the urban cool hang-outs in districts such as Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Neukölln and even raw Friedrichshain are more the magnet for today’s weekenders.
Still there’s no escaping the huge burden of history borne by Berlin – the legacy of Nazism, Communism and the city’s perennial brand of Hedonism, all to come to terms with. It makes for a thought-provoking cocktail of impressions.
Where to start? For me it was on top of a car park in Neukölln. Klunkerkranich is a place to get your bearings, but first be prepared to negotiate five floors of shopping mall and a couple of concrete ramps. Your reward a ramshackle boho bar (no food), a sun trap with a wonderful view across the city (main image).
Two Weissbiers later and I felt like a native, though these were cloudy, refreshing Bavarian wheat beers; the real native Berliner Weisse is rather tart, neutral stuff perked up with a Schusse (shot) of raspberry or (shockingly green) woodruff syrup. Like Currywurst, really just a one-off must.
For old times’ sake, I drank one in the Prater on Kastanienallee, a true old-fashioned, tree-shaded beer garden, open seasonally, surviving up among the baristas and sushi meisters of hip Prenzlauerberg.
For the most spectacular view of the sprawling metroplis trek up to the top of a DDR relic – the Fernsehturm (telly tower). You can sip suitably retro cocktails in the panoramic bar 365 metres above the ground and imagine the Stasi are stalking you. In its shadow is another institution peddling a Teutonic image at odds with contemporary Berlin. The Alexanderplatz branch of Munich’s famous Hofbräuhauswill satisfy your craving forSchweinebraten, dumplings and the like.
You are now in Mitte, catch-all designation for the city’s core, which I kept gravitating back to (but not Alexanderplatz itself, concrete ‘dead’ centre). Much more human in scale and with better shopping, the Hackesche Höfe is a series of eight inter-connected Art Nouveau courtyards with elaborate ceramic facades off Rosenthalerstrasse, mixing shops, bars, theatre and creative studios. Neglected during the GDR era, it symbolises the rebirth of the whole Mitte, where thoroughfares such as Torstrasse, Linienstrasse, Tucholskystrasse and Auguststrasse are packed with interesting indie restaurants and bars.
On Torstrasse, I’d recommend tiny Noto, with its laid-back contemporary take on German food, but even better in the same vein on Linienstrasse, Das Lokal, where an old corner Kneipe (bar) has been transformed into one of the best affordable, casual dining spots in the city. They squeezed me in at the counter and I munched on a blanquette of rose veal and drank a limpid Rheinpfalz Pinot Noir. Then I went back another night for venison.
Even more casual was Berlin’s take on street food, at Birgit and Bier, a hippyish beer garden, just south of the River Spree, that makes Klunkerkranich look smooth. I like this Turkish cafe heavy corner of Kreuzberg, where the spirit of alternative Berlin lingers on. Promenade along the river westwards beyond Schlesisches Tor and you’ll find wonderful street markets.
Or step in off the wide, breezy space that is Warschauerstrasse and enjoy the achingly cool public space of the Michelberger Hotel in the company of one of Berlin’s new wave craft beers from Brewbaker. For those of you that have missed the city’s club scene, it’s only a 10 minute walk from Berghain, which finally reopened at the start of October, the former power station having been repurposed as an art space during the Pandemic.
By all means visit the big sights, the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie, but weekends away should also be about this kind of aimless sauntering, keeping your eyes open. The Germans have a verb for it: to ‘Bummel’.
So, if you’re in the Tiergarten, Berlin’s equivalent of Central Park complete with an obligatory nude sunbathing patch, grab a beer and pizza and hire a boat at the lakeside Cafe am Neuen See. Finally, for the ultimate drift through this fascinating metropolis let the stern take the strain – go on a river cruise. Boarding near the medieval Marienkirche, famous for its ethereal ‘Dance of Death’ fresco, I took the basic 23 euros one hour tour from Stern & Kreis. We glided serenely past the bombastic hulk of the Cathedral, the monumental Museum Island and on to the modern riverside resurgence beyond the Reichstag. It would give a fascinating over-view for a first time visitor. Oh yes, and there is a Himmel; they serve beer on board.
Make this your Berlin Bucket List
There’s so much to see, don’t try to cram too much into your stay. I’m saving sunbathing out at the Wannsee lake and a visit to the Stasi (East German secret police) Museum until next time. Here, though, are a few musts…
The Holocaust Memorial
Between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, its design is inspired by Prague’s amazing Jewish Graveyard with its dense, cluttered gravestones. Here in Berlin 2,700 square, dark grey pillars of varying heights are scattered across the site. In the middle of the engulfing maze I was overcome by an immense feeling of isolation and despair, which is the appropriate response to a space designed to commemorate the exterminated Jews of Europe.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, this Daniel Libeskind building in Kreuzberg bears obvious architectural resemblances to his later project, the Imperial War Museum North at Salford Quays. Step back from its zinc facade and the great zigzag slashes rearrange themselves into a dislocated Star of David. Three long, intersecting corridors – ‘axes’ of exile, holocaust and continuity – showcase small artefacts, mementos, testimonies, but the centrepiece is the Holocaust Tower. This is a vertiginous, walled void, completely dark but for a small slit high up, allowing light and noises from outside. Small batches of visitors are filtered in at a time and the huge door swings behind you. Flesh-creeping.
On the central site of the Gestapo and SS HQs, this exhibition space offers a comprehensive account of the rise of Nazism. Outside, set against a remaining fragment of the Berlin Wall, is an essential open air presentation of life in Berlin from 1933-45.
Immediately upon reunification, the city bought a stretch of the Berlin Wall on Bernauerstrasse to keep as a memorial of the fortified dividing line that was suddenly imposed upon the city by the East German regime in 1961. The visitor centre charts how families were separated on that fateful day. Elsewhere across the city are preserved segments of the Wall. Within an easy canalside walk of my hotel near the Hauptbahnhof is the Invalidenhof, a 19th century graveyard poignantly preserved by being in the ‘death strip’. Here it was in 1962 that West German police shot dead an East German border guard to rescue a 15-year-old boy who was in the process of escaping.
Five great museums cluster on the site of the original Berlin river island settlement, now a Unesco World Heritage Site. You could spend an entire week exploring the collections. Pick one? Perhaps the Pergamon built over a century ago in the style of a Babylonian temple to house the treasures German archaeologists were plundering across the globe. Stand-outs are the ancient Pergamon altar itself unearthed in eastern Turkey and the reconstruction of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate with its eerily preserved deep blue bricks and and sculpted mythical beasts. If all this monumentalism leaves you cold slip into the nearby Alte Nationalgalerie, whose collection of predominantly 19th century art boasts some wonderful Romantic landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich.
Neil Sowerby stayed at Motel One Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Invalidenstrasse 54, 10557 Berlin, +49 30 36410050. It’s across from the transport hub of the central station.
For full tourism information go to the Visit Berlin site and to book a Berlin Welcome Card, official tourist ticket giving access to public transport and many attractions plus 200 discount offers go to this link.