Berlin has always been near the top of my travel wish-list and with majestic horse chestnut trees in full bloom, purple lilacs scenting the air, and tall linden trees lining the boulevards, I’m actually here.
I’ve visited the notorious Checkpoint Charlie – the “crossing” between former East and West Berlin – I’ve walked over the same bridge as the literary Spy Who Came in from the Cold; I’ve had my photograph taken at the iconic Brandenburg Gate; been dazzled by Berlin’s biggest and best theatre spectacular; been reduced to tears at the Holocaust Memorial, flinched at the sight of the intimidating Reichstag, and shopped on the glitzy Kurfürstendamm.
I’ve even got a certificate from the Visit Berlin Tourist office proclaiming “Ich bin ein Berliner”.
I shall remember the dynamism and energy of the city, the stunning modern architecture which takes as its theme Transparency – and employs glass in every possible way. I shall remember Museum Island, the centre of Berlin’s arts landscape, with its five museums in the historic city centre, a Unesco World Heritage Site where you can marvel at the world-famous Pergamon Altar, the bust of Nefertiti, or any of the art treasures encompassing 6 000 years of human history. I even sneaked in a quick visit to the Tiergarten, Berlin’s famous zoo.
I didn’t, however, get to visit any of the three opera houses or hear at firsthand one of the eight large symphony orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle, although I did take in a couple of bars and restaurants.
Berlin never sleeps. “It’s the hangover city, the city of clubs, bars and cabaret,” says Marcus, our guide. “There are no opening and closing hours, that’s why Berlin is unique. It’s the city of extremes, where everybody is free.”
What I shall take away more than anything, however, are my memories of the Berlin Wall.
Most of us know the outlines of 20th century European history. Germany is defeated by the Allies in World War II. Berlin is carved up by the victors into the East and Western sectors. West Berlin becomes an island of democracy, literally walled off by the Russians who turn East Berlin and East Germany into a Socialist terror state. The Wall comes down after 28 years in 1998 and the process of German reunification begins.
But the Wall is still everywhere. Graffitied sections occur on street corners, long stretches of it are left as memorials, while the East Side Gallery, a 1.3km-long section of the wall near the city centre, showcases approximately 106 murals by international artists and has become an international memorial for freedom. I shudder at The Mortal Kiss by Dimitrji Vrubel, which shows East German leader Erich Honecker and Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev in their notorious mouth-to-mouth kiss because of what it symbolises – the subjection, oppression and fear that Russia imposed on a conquered people.
At Potsdam, a beautiful little city of 18th-century buildings and parks designed and built by Frederick the Great, we are taken into the room where the historic Potsdam Treaty was signed in 1945 by Churchill, Stalin and Truman. Our guide, Kevin Kennedy (“not a very German name, but I’m the son of an American GI”) a specialist in 20th century history, tells us why the meetings between the three leaders of the then free world only started at 5pm each day. “Stalin drank six bottles of red Georgian wine each night, whilst Churchill downed a bottle of fine brandy. Harry Truman, moderate in contrast, only drank a Bourbon before breakfast so was keen to start earlier. The other two wouldn’t hear of it…”
Draw your own conclusions.
And it was whilst in Potsdam, once the centre and symbol of Prussian militarism, that Truman received the fateful telegram from America saying that “Little Boy” was now ready, and gave the order for the atomic bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima.
From Potsdam it’s on to Halle, another delightful medieval city now restored and renovated from the obligatory taxes that all Germans today are required to pay towards the restoration of former East Germany.
The 500-year-old Moritzburg Castle in Halle was the favourite residence of Cardinal Albrecht, after the Emperor himself, the most powerful man in the Holy Roman Empire. It was against his excesses, symbolising the corruption and decadence of the Catholic Church, that Martin Luther railed, and single-handedly, with great courage, took on the might of the Holy Roman Church and brought the Reformation and Protestanism to Europe in 1539 when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg.
The castle has now been restored and the prizewinning Spanish architects who won an international competition for the project have seamlessly incorporated aluminium and glass into the old stone walls and provided dramatic spacious gallery spaces.
Leipzig’s next – Saxony’s pulsating city and most popular destination in Germany for culture-lovers with a history stretching back more than 1 000 years.
In the classically beautiful but simple late 1950s Opera House, at the opening of the annual German Travel Mart – my reason for being in Germany – the mayor Tobias Kogge brims with passion for his city as he talks us through its medieval past, its royal past, the “Peaceful Revolution” of 1989 and the past 20 years of its lightning journey from the Iron Curtain days to the vibrant, arty city it is today.
BMW, DHL, a thriving university built to look like a church, and an enviable public transport system are bringing Leipzig back from its dark Socialist past, although glimpses in murky corners of crumbling buildings and an aura of rot and decay still permeate parts of the city.
People, especially young ones, poured out of the city after reunification, but now new young people are coming back and the city is alive with energy. It’s a shopping mecca, a historian’s delight, a music lover’s paradise and an art enthusiast’s dream. I visit the Spinnerei, once the biggest cotton factory in continental Europe, now a buzzing centre of contemporary art, design, and artists’ studios. The Museum of Fine Arts, the first art museum to be built since 1945, houses European art from the 15th to the 18th century, but its prime attractions are the works of Leipzig-born artists Max Klinger and Max Beckmann, and the large format works of Neo Rauch and other painters of the “New Leipzig School”. Klinger’s controversial statue of Beethoven as Greek god dominates one room.
Not far away, the glass-cubed Grassi Museum of Applied Arts has an exhibition From Art Nouveau to the Present with over 1 500 works in the traditions of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Functionalism.
But Leipzig is also a city of music. The day before we had visited the 800-year-old St Thomas Boys’ Choir, the Bach Museum (Johann Sebastian lived and worked in Leipzig for years), the Richard Wagner Memorial Site, the Mendelssohn House and the Museum of Musical Instruments which houses one of the world’s largest collections of musical instruments.
And if you need a break from city life, then take a boat trip under the bridges on the canals that meander through the city, where the indigenous vegetation is once again flourishing.
It’s no wonder that Germany attracts so many tourists and has become a top European travel destination. It really has it all – history, culture, good food, wonderful public transport – and is comparatively much more affordable than England or France and offers very good value for money.
I shall certainly go back. - Sunday Independent