I visited Berlin six months ago and came away disappointed. After a short period of reflection I came to the conclusion that this was an unfair assessment, I was on a stag party weekend and it is difficult to fully appreciate a city when you only see it through the bottom of a beer glass!
Berlin is the third most visited city in Europe (31m) after London (80m) and then Paris (48m) and it began to dawn on me that I needed to go back to see to see if I had misjudged it, after all it has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, just one less than London, one more than Rome (surprising) and two more than Paris which has only one so a visit in December to the Christmas markets together with cheap airline flights seemed to be a very good opportunity.
We travelled with friends and I arranged travel and accommodation in exactly the same places and in that way I was able to be the perfect travel guide. We arrived at Schönefeld Airport late morning and took a swift connecting train to the city centre.
We were staying at a hotel in Alexanderplatz so our tour began right there. Not the most thrilling place in the World I have to say, a large concrete public square and transport hub that was once a main square of the ex German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
When you first see Alexanderplatz it is like being punched in the face. It is grey and stark, bleak and austere. Teutonic blood and iron meets communist brutalism and the area retains a socialist appearance. Trains, trams and cars all busily converge here and people hurry through past the homeless people in their temporary cardboard homes underneath a concrete railway bridge decorated with graffiti, There are no pavement bars and cafés because it simply isn’t a pleasing place to stop or linger. It is stripped bare of vivacity, it is cheerless and lacks any sparkle. A rather dreary place to live I imagine.
The square is vast and soulless, a sprawling mass of functional concrete, glass and steel. It is completely without charm or anything remotely pleasing to the eye. I have to take into consideration of course that only seventy-five years ago Berlin was practically a wasteland courtesy of the Soviet Red Army as they advanced from the east and the south and the north and the Western Allies turned a blind eye.
There seems to have been a collective agreement in East Berlin not to build anything that could ever be accused of being attractive. A block of abandoned flats awaiting demolition makes my point for me…
For anyone that does want to loiter there is the World Clock that tells the current time in nearly one hundred and fifty major cities from around the world and which in 2015 the German government declared to be a historical and culturally significant monument. Really? It isn’t the Eiffel Tower or the London Eye that’s for sure and Alexanderplatz is neither an elegant Spanish plaza or a cultured Italian piazza.
In the centre of Alexanderplatz I concede there is one very impressive structure, the Fernsehturm, a television tower, which at three hundred and seventy metres high is the tallest structure in Germany, and the third-tallest in the European Union, two metres shorter than the Torreta de Guardamar in Spain and half a metre shorter than the Riga Radio and TV Tower in Latvia. Once a symbol of Communist power it has now been adopted as a trademark of the unified city and enjoys National Monument status.
We took a train and Christine kept asking were we in the (previous) east or the (previous) west and I told her that I would let her know when we crossed over, somewhere near to the Reichstag building we made the transition.
Ten minutes later we were in Charlottenburg which before 1989 and reunification was the tourist centre of West Berlin, but it was quickly replaced in its status by the old centre, formally in the east which was restored to its former glory. Charlottenburg in what was once the British sector retreated into relative obscurity.
From the railway station we walked for a while through residential streets in one of which is an element of one of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, The modernist housing estates of the Weimer Republic (1919-33) which compared favourably to the communist housing estates of the east.
The difference from Alexanderplatz is enormous because this part of the city was not destroyed in the Soviet bombardment of Berlin and it retains an air of elegance and history and the only Royal Palace that remains in the city.
It was closed today but we walked around the extensive gardens and there was a Christmas market where we gasped at the prices and bought nothing more than a bratwurst sausage before making our way back to the railway station and returning to the east via the Tiergarten and the Brandenburg Gate.