I had considered visiting Berlin several times over the last ten years, there are nearly always cheap flights available but for some reason I have never made it there. I had often come very close to booking flights but then somewhere more appealing has nicked in ahead of the German capital at the last minute and I have made alternative plans. Berlin would always have to wait.
This time I had no excuse not to go because I was invited to a gentlemen’s weekend away (ok, a stag party) so together with my brother Richard a party of boys several years younger than me, I left East Midlands Airport early one morning and two hours later was drinking beer at Schoenefeld Flughafen.
My travelling companions…
The remainder of the first day was mostly spent drinking beer the details of which I won’t bore you with but on the second day while the boys went off to do boy’s stuff Richard and I planned a walking tour of the city. The third most visited city in Europe (31m) after London (80m) and then Paris (48m).
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).
The place 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 but there seems to have been a collective agreement in Germany not to build anything that could ever be accused of being attractive.
A block of abandoned flats awaiting demolition makes my point for me…
I contrast this with the reconstruction work in other European countries. In Poland for example it seems to me have made a much better job of putting things back together in the major cities of Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw. But for me France stands out in the matter of restoration as they took time and imagination to rebuild their ruined infrastructure. Even earlier, after the siege of Paris in 1871 they built a grand city to replace the ruins of the Prussian bombardment and post 1945 they rebuilt towns and cities with style. St Malo in Brittany stands out for me as a perfect example.
Trains, trams and cars all busily converge at Alexanderplatz 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 an pleasing place to stop or linger. It is stripped bare of vivacity, a cheerless place that lacks any sparkle, a rather dreary place to live I imagine.
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 found a busy restaurant and had an excellent breakfast even though we had to pay for the tea and coffee on top of the food bill and then without regret we slipped out of Alexanderplatz heading south.
Soon after we came across the Red Town Hall, a brutal building built in a style representing Teutonic muscle, German authority and Prussian power. It was badly damaged during the Second World War but was quickly restored to original plans soon after by the East German regime. I didn’t care for it I have to say.
At this point we were still in what was East Berlin and our plan, such as we had one was to make our way to what was once Check Point Charlie, where east met west and then cross to what was West Berlin and make our way steadily west towards the Reichstag building and the Tiergarten.
I hoped that Berlin might improve as we went along, 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.