Saturday, June 15th 2013
Our first attempt at making a trip to Berlin had failed, through no fault of ours but through the vagaries of meteorology (see Frustrated by snow). While problems caused by weather can be borne philosophically, those caused by the dishonesty and bloody-mindedness of people are not so easily put up with. The travel company with whom we had booked our tickets proved recalcitrant in the extreme when it came to reimbursing our tickets and it took four months to achieve this simple goal (see A kind of vindication, particularly the Update at the end).
We both dislike travelling by air and would rather take the train, if possible. Unfortunately, travelling to Berlin by train would be extremely inconvenient because of the length of time it takes – most journeys span two days. As we had to go by air, and mindful of our nerve-racking experiences with Crystal Travel, we booked with British Airways direct. The weather caused no problems this time and in fact we found we had flown into a heat wave!
The only slight problem was that by the time we booked our journey, most of the cheaper flights had been taken and so we flew out of Heathrow on an evening flight, arriving at Berlin Tegel Airport at 10 pm local time. Apart from that, all was well and both the journey and checking into the hotel passed without a hitch.
Now read on…
Our hotel is the Park Inn on Alexanderplatz. This is probably the biggest hotel we have ever stayed in. Night and day are meaningless terms here in the sense that the hotel reception remains open 24 hours and there is a continual coming and going of guests and visitors at all hours. The process of checking in was completed with admirable efficiency and we were handed electronic keys to our room on the 26th floor. Yes, you did read that correctly: our room was on floor 26.
There are two lifts at the hotel. One serves floors 0 to 5 and the other, floors 0 and 5 to 30. The overlap at floor 5 occurs to allow you to change lifts to access the second floor restaurant for breakfast. The hotel has 32 floors altogether but I think the top two are accessible by stairs only. There are no bedrooms on the top two floors but guests may access the rooftop terrace by climbing the stairs. There is a €3 fee for this.
Anticipating somewhat, here is a linguistic note. One of the things that made me nervous about coming to Berlin was that I do not speak more than a few words and phrases of German but it turned out that I need not have worried. Whatever the official language policy of the EU may be, it seems that English (and it is English rather than American) is now the de facto lingua franca of the Union. We had found that in the Netherlands and in Flanders most people not merely spoke English but spoke good and fluent English. In that respect, Berlin turned out to be almost on a par with Flanders. Only a few of the people we needed to deal with either spoke no English or spoke it haltingly. Nor did we even have to enquire “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” because people tended to address us in English by default.
Though we had arrived late, we of course wanted to take a look at the town. I started with a couple of pictures from our bedroom window.
The Park Inn is not the tallest building in Berlin but is among the tallest. The view from the window overtopped all of the buildings in view and showed an urban landscape picked out in lights.
For someone like me with a fear of heights, this view of the street 26 storeys below is a little disturbing. Fortunately, there was a double-glazed window between me and the drop which, if it made photography more difficult, also made me feel a little less nervous!
We went down in the fast lift and took photos of the hotel from the street. The view looking up the cliff-like façade was almost as impressive as the view of the city from the window. Oversize buildings are one of my pet hates and here I was, staying in one!
This was my first glimpse of a famous Berlin landmark. It is the Fernsehturm, or television tower. It was built between 1965 and 1969 when this sector of Berlin was part of the German Democratic Republic. It was built to serve a useful purpose – to broadcast television programmes – but also as a symbol of pride for the government. At 368 meters (1,207 feet) tall, it dominates the skyline from practically everywhere in Berlin. For us, it had the advantage that because it was near the hotel, we could use it for navigation if we got lost!
To be honest, I don’t know what this building is. It seemed to contain cafes and bars and perhaps other things. I was intrigued by the asymmetrical roof which made the building look as though it was wearing a clown’s pointy hat at a rakish angle. Architecturally, Berlin is a showcase (if you want to be nice about it) or a hotch-potch (if you want to be impartial). Beautiful old buildings are lost in a sea of modern stuff, some of it imaginative, much of it huge, dull and slab-like. In a good mood I suppose I would give this one 8 out of ten because it is quirky and different at least, not that being quirky and different necessarily alone justifies a design in my view.
When the town is illuminated with electric lights during the hours of darkness, its buildings and the town as a whole, seem quite different from their more familiar daytime appearance. Buildings may show only parts of themselves, leaving the rest in darkness. So it was with this, the oldest church in Berlin, the Marienkirche or Church of St Mary. Its age is uncertain but its figure today is the result of rebuilding in modern times.
There are relatively few old buildings in Berlin, especially elegant ones like Marienkirche, so I am presenting it twice, perhaps to redress the balance a little!
Seeing a cafe, we thought to go in and order coffee and cake, our first treat of the stay. They welcomed us affably enough but then the service proceeded at about the rate of drying paint. We spent more time waiting for our order and then waiting for the bill and then waiting for the waiter to collect the money than we spent eating cake and drinking coffee. We won’t be hurrying back.
If the Red City Hall (Rathaus) had been built in Britain I would refer to it as Victorian because it dates from the 1860s but “Victorian” is not an appropriate term here, despite the German origins of that Queen and Albert her consort. The Rathaus was extensively rebuilt in the 1950s after it was badly damaged by allied bombing in Word War Two – and this should serve to remind us that dreadful losses were suffered by both sides in the war.
As in London, there were road works in progress in various parts of the city. I don’t know whether this was because of some concerted plan, such as London’s Crossrail project, or because of a number of independent operations. In any case, any modern city is bound to be undergoing works somewhere at any time. This view gives an idea of the size of the Rathaus and the height of its slightly improbably tall clock tower. Despite what I am tempted to describe a little cheekily as its Germanic stolidity, it knocks spots off many of the modern horrors we saw in Berlin.
Wherever you go in Berlin, if you can’t see the Fernsehturm, just turn around, because it’s there somewhere. There’s a trick to photographing it at night. The aerial (at least, I think it’s the aerial) that extends above the bulge, is picked out prettily in red lights but these flash on and off all together. If you photograph the tower when the lights are off, the aerial is invisible and the tower looks like a gigantic nail. So you need to time your exposure for when the lights come on and then you see the whole thing.
We came across this pretty arcade filled with speciality shops or “boutiques” though I couldn’t tell you where it was.
Being something of a misanthropist (my feline persona is no accident), I tend to take photos with as few people in them as possible. I will wait a long time for that magic accidental instant when the field of view momentarily clears and I have an unobstructed view of my subject. (That’s not always possible in the crowded city, of course, but one tries. How one tries…) At this hour in Berlin, it wasn’t too difficult because such nightlife as there was seemed to be indoors or on the terraces of cafes, leaving the streets and square fairly clear.
We saw light sparkling on water and knew we had reached the River Spree or, rather, one of its branches. As it passes through Berlin, the river splits into two streams and then joins into one again. (This map shows the configuration.) Alternatively, we can regard the land within the loop as an island in the river. This area has been used as the location of a set of museums and is consequently known as Museumsinsel (Museum Island).
There has been a series of religious buildings on this site but the present church was completed in 1905. It too was badly damaged during the Second World War and required extensive rebuilding. Berlin doesn’t actually have a cathedral but this church, as it were, stands in for one.
We started back towards the hotel along Karl-Liebknecht-Straße and found this arcade with shops and cafes. I’m sure it has its own name but, if so, I don’t know what that name is. One of its features is a pair of sculptures of a man and a woman, each standing on a column. They are by Stephan Balkenhol and are entitled Mann auf Säule and Frau auf Säule, respectively.
Before going into the hotel and going to sleep, I of course had to take one more photo of the TV tower. I’ll try to ration myself in the days to come. Here we have old and new, the reasonably tall and the outrageously tall, or Marienkirche and the Fernsehturm, brought side by side by the angle of view.
Sunday, June 16th 2013
On awaking this morning, our first thought was to look out of our 26th-floor hotel room window to see in daylight the view we had observed last night in darkness.
The view was spectacular in its way but less pretty than when it was all picked out in lights. So much of Berlin has been rebuilt that it is a city of modern architecture, much of it boring and dull, consisting of grey concrete block after grey concrete block with little variation and no character. The only criterion here seems to be to build as high as funding allows. I am told that Berlin is an historic city, and well it might be, but any traces of that history are hard to find in this morass of featureless sameness. I should say that neither Tigger nor other fans of Berlin to whom I have spoken, agree with me on this, but it seems to me that what they perceive in the city is largely imagined, remembered from the past, not actually visible now. The newcomer must make of the city what he sees here now.
Our hotel booking included breakfast which is here an industrial affair. You enter the vast breakfast room where white coated staff move about continually clearing tables. You seek out a cleared table and mark your ownership by leaving a hat, jacket or bag on a chair and then you go to the buffet to find food and drink. No one checked that we were bona fide guests and I think anyone with a little self-confidence could sneak in here and get a free breakfast. As usual, choice for vegetarians was somewhat limited but the food was plentiful and of reasonable quality.
After breakfast we went for our first daylight exploration of Berlin. We saw Marienkirche – a welcome relief from the above mentioned architectural dullness – and beside it a statue of that religious firebrand and hero of Protestantism, Martin Luther, posturing with his Bible and presumably pointing out the passages from St Paul that caused his rethink of prevailing dogma.
The statue was started by Paul Martin Otto (1846-93) but was completed after his death by Robert Toberentz (1849-95). It has a number of holes in it that look suspiciously like bullet holes, though I cannot be certain that they really were so caused. It’s nevertheless an intriguing thought.
Near the church is the Neptunbrunnen or Neptune Fountain. This flamboyant and rather Romantic work of sculpture was designed by Reinhold Begas and was built in 1891 in the Schlossplatz. It was subsequently moved twice and ended up here in 1969. It mixes Classical and German themes with the god Neptune in the centre surrounded by four female figures representing the Prussian rivers Elbe, Rhine, Vistula and Oder. As is common with public sculptures at ground level, the patina has in places been polished away showing which parts passers-by like to fondle – or perhaps sit on!
A little further on is a set that represents a rather different mythology and is one of the many reminders that one sector of Berlin was part of the Marxist German Democratic Republic.1 The sculpture, by Ludwig Engelhardt, inaugurated in 1986, shows Karl Marx, seated, with Friedrich Engels standing beside him. I imagine that their poses are intended to represent their relationship with Engels, who edited and reorganized Marx’s writings, in the slightly subservient standing position beside the Master. The polish on the sculpture of Marx suggests that people like to sit (and perhaps be photographed) on his lap! The slightly sad expressions to be glimpsed under the ample facial hair might reflect the fact that the Berlin of today is a thriving paragon of Capitalism.
We next went on the first of the museum visits that we had planned. Set in a park and sited on Museumsinsel (“Museum Island”), the island created by the splitting of the River Spree, the building impresses from afar with its mighty columned neoclassical form. It was built between 1823 and 1830 by architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel for King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia. The Latin inscription running almost the whole length of the façade reads: FREDERICVS GVILELMVS III STVDIO ANTIQVITATIS OMNIGENAE ET ARTIVM LIBERALIVM MVSEVM CONSTITVIT MDCCCXXVIII (“Friedrich Wilhelm III founded this museum for the study of every kind of antiquities and of the liberal arts in 1828”). Today it is better known as the Altes Museum or Old Museum.
The exhibits are arranged in the manner of a conventional museum in which larger and more robust items stand exposed, perhaps on platforms or pedestals, and smaller, more fragile or valuable items are protected within glass cases – the sort of museum where, to be honest, I feel most comfortable. As you can see, photography is allowed.
The museum is a treasure house of ancient objects, including art works, monuments, jewellery and personal effects. Many are in the original, sometimes incomplete, form in which they were found, while others have been restored or have had parts added to give a better impression of how the object would have appeared when first made. Such treatment can be controversial, of course, but over all, the museum creates a good impression.
There is so much to see here that on a short visit like ours you can do no more than sample its riches. Everything is carefully labelled in three languages, German, English and (if I remember correctly) French. Moreover, the labels are helpfully detailed. For example, that for the above reads (in English) as follows:
Trachones near Athens (Greece), necropolis,
acquired in 1844; clay, 510-500 BC, Attic Black-figure
The loutrophoros was a purely ritual vessel serving to
transport water for the marriage bath. But it was also
used at burials and placed on the tomb signalling that
the deceased had died unmarried. The images of mourn-
ing men and women by a bier refer to this.
As well as ornaments there were portraits and or representations of people, both the famous and the obscure.
Among the famous (or perhaps “infamous” would be a more appropriate designation) is Livia, wife of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, mother of Tiberius and grandmother of Claudius who, despite her penchant for removing enemies and rivals by means of poison and other devious stratagems, deified her upon her death, presumably so that she could continue her manipulative political activities among the gods.
Fascinating as the likenesses of historical figures are, perhaps the most moving are those portraits of ordinary people, sometimes done in life but more often made as post mortem likenesses to be placed on tombs. Such a one is the head pictured above, thought to be from a funerary statue in Italy and dating from the second century BC.
The building itself is grand, and impressive in its own right. The grandiose atrium, columned and with a mosaic floor, is topped by a breathtaking dome.
Anyone interested in the ancient world and its manifestations in monuments and the more durable forms of art, would have plenty to study here. Our time, though, was limited and we must perforce move on.
In town, we passed in front of the Friedrichstadt Palast, billed as Europe’s biggest show palace. This building dates from the 1980s but there were forerunners, right back to when it was first founded as a market. We did not go in but had a look around the outside and found…
…some lively sculpted reliefs. If you look at the carefully you can begin to pick out various variety and circus acts of the kind that have been performed and are no doubt still performed here.
We were now ready for lunch and sharp-eyed Tigger had already spotted an interesting possibility, the Bombay, an “Indisches Restaurant”. Indian food is a favourite with us and, being on holiday, we were ready for a treat! The food was good and the service attentive so we shall certainly go there again on any future visit to Berlin. (The Indian lady in the picture is, of course, a model, not a real person!)
We continued our rambles and explorations and decided to stop off for refreshments at an outlet called Balzac Coffee. On the projecting wall of a block of flats next door I noticed an elaborate painting, apparently representing four rats climbing up a cord. Intriguing as this work was in itself (was it graffiti or wall art? a piece of “guerrilla art” or a commissioned painting?), I was overtaken by a feeling of familiarity. I have seen large-scale animal paintings like this elsewhere but so far only in England. This is the first one I have seen beyond our shores. The question is whether it is the same artist in each case. If you wish to compare, you will find here a photo of similar animals that I photographed at the Southbank Centre in London.
We wanted to return to our hotel and the quickest way to get to the vicinity was to take a ride on the U-Bahn. This service, whose name is an abbreviation of Untergrundbahn (“underground railway”) is the Berlin analogue of London’s tube system. It sent us speedily on our way and we found the maps fairly easy to understand, except in one case where part of a line was closed for maintenance work and this was not obvious to us.
Our reason for returning to the hotel was that we wanted to visit the roof. Part of the hotel’s roof, the 32nd floor, has been arranged as a viewing terrace. There is a fee for access (€6, if I remember correctly) and once up there you can buy drinks and sit in the loungers. A more rewarding activity, though, is to explore the view. Among the worthwhile sights is this view of the The Fernsehturm, here seen in its entirety, unlike at ground level where the lower parts are usually hidden by other buildings.
Looking out over the streets and buildings towards the distant horizon, one sees the city almost like a map. Close up, details are clear but the panorama shades off into haze in the distance.
When you look at a closer area, the view resembles that of an architect’s model rather than a scene for the real world. For example, compare the Red Rathaus as it appears above (at magnification X3) with this photo taken on the ground.
We had hoped to capture some fine sunset pictures from this vantage point but as the sun sank gradually towards to horizon, clouds gathered, hiding it, so we decided to move on.
Incidentally, if you are wondering why my fear of heights seems not to have bothered me here, it is because the entire terrace is enclosed in netting. Anyone coming up here in hope of committing spectacular suicide by jumping 32 floors would be disappointed.
Partly on foot and partly by tram, we made our way north(-ish) to a site Tigger wanted to visit. At this time of day it was closed to visitors but it was illuminated and presented a strange and dreamlike scene. One could almost imagine it was an alien craft descended to earth.
This was the Zeiss-Großplanetarium (Zeiss Major Planetarium), founded in 1987 and one of the largest such facilities in Europe. It is set in gardens and we walked around it, a blue globe shining in the night.
On the way back to the hotel we passed through Hackescher Markt, which was still busy despite the late hour. This marketplace was built around 1750 under the supervision on Hans Christophe Friedrich Graf von Hacke (1699-1754), after whom it was named. A market is still held here twice a week but the precinct is now known as a cultural centre and night spot.
After our exertions, we fancied treating ourselves to coffee and cake. Serendipitously, we chanced upon the deliciously retro Sixties, an establishment which describes itself as an “American Cafe Restaurant Bar”. The name of course expresses the retro intention and style. It was frequented mainly by younger people and so looked a little like a set for a scene from Happy Days. Service was slow and there was some confusion caused by the fact that they didn’t have quite what the menu said they had but it all worked out in the end.
It was time to head back to the hotel for the night. Depleted of energy we felt the quick direct way was best and took the S-Bahn. The abbreviation stands for “StadtSchnellbahn” or “city fast train” and, together with the U-Bahn and the trams, provides a quick way to get around Berlin.
As for us, we had done enough for one day and were looking forward to a restorative night’s sleep. There would be another day tomorrow…!
1Another such reminder, curiously enough, is our hotel, the Park Inn. We learned that this had been built in the era of the GDR as a place where higher ranking members of the political hierarchy could go for rest and recreation. Every regime has its gravy train.
Monday, June 17th 2013
Today was a busy day when we explored quite a wide area, as shown by my geotagger map below. (You might want to compare it with this Google map.)
If you are wondering about the strange spur shooting off to the north-east without any photos, well, that was another adventure that I’ll explain later!
Because we covered a lot of ground and took very many photos, it’s difficult to do more than show a few samples of the pictures we collected. Our first destination was Spandau, to which we travelled on the S-Bahn.
Spandau boasts a large and impressive rathaus, or city hall. A plaque on the side tells us that it was designed by Heinrich Reinhardt and Georg Süßenguth and built between 1910 and 1913. Today Spandau is a borough of greater Berlin but until 1920 it was an independent city. Even today, the feel of the place is that of a separate town, something that will be familiar to visitors to the outer centres of Greater London.
Although the rathaus was built in the second decade of the 20th century, it boasts this attractive, medieval style gateway in which there are rooms above the entrance arches.
In front of the city hall we spied this fire alarm. I haven’t been able to find out its age but guess it is 19th- or early 20th- century. It is of a sort called a pull-alarm, that is, on the other side there is a door which opens to reveal a handle which is to be pulled to alert the fire service. This would be of strictly local usefulness as there would be no point in the fire engine galloping here only to discover that the fire is on the other side of town.
Close by the city hall passes what looks like a narrow, decorative stream or river. I don’t know whether this is a natural formation or whether it was created for some purpose. Either way, the ducks like it! It is a spur of the River Havel, one of the main rivers of Germany which receives Berlin’s Spree as a tributary.
Life in Spandau seems to centre on the Altstadt or Old Town. It is a lively place of shops, restaurants and bars, and a fair amount of building work is going on, suggesting a healthy economy.
This is where the farmers’ market is held several times a week. There is also a famous Christmas market that takes place here though, of course, we did not see it!
Like most ancient towns, Spandau is a mixture of the old and the new. Among the old is the fountain. These are a feature of older German towns but I am familiar with them from Alsace so this one gave me an “at home” feeling.
Among the new is this engaging sculpture of a playful young otter. Unfortunately, I have not able to discover the identity of the artist.
A brooding presence in the Aldstadt is the Protestant Church of St Nikolai. I am not sure when the present brick church was built though it stands on foundations that once belonged to a Dominican monastery. It stands in Reformationsplatz, the name of which indicates that this church played a prominent part in the Reformation but you may, like me, find more interesting the cannon ball wedged in one of the walls. Dated to April 20th, 1813, it became lodged there during one of Napoleon’s wars.
By now we were feeling in need of a refreshing cup of tea and spotted this Turkish cafe restaurant. Though big, it was friendly and had the atmosphere more of a social centre. And they make a good cup of tea!
For the next stage in the ramble, we took to the U-Bahn, Berlin’s underground railway system. In preparation for our ill-fated March trip to Berlin (see Frustrated by snow), we had bought a Berlin Pass each. Fortunately, these remain valid for a year and give you free travel on all public transport in Berlin for three days from first usage. They also provide free or discounted entry to a number of museums and other tourist attractions. Not only do they save you money but they also facilitate your movements around Berlin.
Though it differs in detail (e.g. the design of trains and entry gates), and the decor is vaguely Art Deco modern, the U-Bahn is similar to the London tube. We found the maps less intuitive than the modern descendants of Harry Beck’s inspired circuit-diagram maps for the tube, but fairly easy to use nonetheless. The only difficulty we had was as a result of a section of one line being out of service for track maintenance. This wasn’t at all clear – at least, not to us – and had us going round in circles until we realized what the problem was.
The U-Bahn brought us to a district of Berlin called Kreutzberg. It is quite well known and, I think, well favoured. There were broad avenues, lots of traffic and plenty of people in the streets.
Kreutzberg possesses a pointy Catholic church dedicated to St Bonifatius, and a park with a lake. (That’s not all it has, of course, but our time was limited.)
The park is called Viktoria Park. I don’t know whether it is named after “our” Victoria. That is quite possible, given the family connections with Germany and the fact that it opened in 1894 when Queen Victoria was still on the throne. In it stands a sculpture by Ernst Herter (1846-1917), done in 1896 and entitled Der seltene Fang (“The Rare Haul”). It shows a bearded and rather Neptunian-looking fisherman struggling with a young mermaid who has become entangled in his net. His expression and vigorous attempts to subdue his prey leave nothing to the imagination regarding his intent. I think modern sensibilities, especially in the UK, would be uncomfortable with such a work but it is a striking period piece in the genre of picturesque art.
It was a hot sunny day and as we passed the end of Hagelberger Straße, the sight of this small shop proved too tempting to resist. Even if one were not sure of the meaning of “Eismanufaktur” over the door, the giant model ice cream cone would have given the game away. Among the things that Britain does really well are a couple of things it does rather badly. I refer to chocolate and ice cream. Were it not for that brave contingent of immigrant Italian ice cream makers, Britain would be an ice cream desert. Not so Germany or, for that matter, most of the rest of Europe. If that seems a digression, all I can say is that such reflexions are inevitable as one consumes ice cream on a hot afternoon in Berlin.
Next we travelled to the Kurfürstendamm to see a church. Surprised? Well, I do look at churches, despite not being religious, because churches can be beautiful buildings and often contain much that is of historical interest. The church that we went to see is called the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) which, though originally old, has been rebuilt in modern times and is now greatly admired. The main feature is the interior wall made of transparent blue glass tiles. Wartime bombing necessitated the rebuilding and you will find details of the church’s history here.
We were now hankering for lunch and took a look at what was on offer in the neighbourhood of the church. The eateries turned out to be expensive and crowded, so we boarded a bus and stayed on it until the view through the window suggested a more propitious environment.
We took a look at the menu of an eatery called Restauration Bottschaft. They spoke hardly any English and we spoke hardly any German but we managed to get along. To my delight, I saw that on the menu they had flammkuchen. In Alsace this is called flammekueche or, in French, tarte flambée. A large pastry base, a bit like pizza but thinner and crispier, is topped with cheese and, optionally, onions and/or bacon, and cooked, like pizza, in a wood-fired oven. The way you eat it is to cut it into strips, roll these up and munch away holding them with your fingers. The melted cheese tends to run down your chin but who cares? 🙂 The restaurant decor was interesting too and I particularly liked the wooden horse, possibly from on old fairground carousel.
We now started back towards the centre and our hotel but stopped off at a couple of interesting points along the way. The first was at the Tiergarten where the Zoologischer Garten or Zoo was established in 1844 and is still one of the most impressive institutions of its kind. We didn’t go in but managed to catch a sneaky picture of a pair of elephants.
Our next stop was in the semi-parkland, traversed by the River Spree, where stands one of Berlin’s and Germany’s most important buildings.
That building is today called the Bundestag though it – or, rather, its predecessors – had a different name, one that now echoes darkly through the pages of 20th-century history, the Reichstag. In its most recent incarnation, it operated under that name from 1894 but was badly damaged in the course of the Second World War. Under the GDR, the building fell into disuse but it was resuscitated after German Reunification to become once more the centre of government. It was rebuilt and its destroyed dome replaced by a new one designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster. (See Update below.)
I was surprised to discover that according to German law, flags have to be flown from government buildings on certain days. It so happens that today, June 17th, is one of those days, the anniversary of the 1953 uprising in East Germany. I also noticed that the flags were being flown at half-mast and I assume the reason is that today is the day of the funeral of Baroness Thatcher.
We now made our way back to the hotel to make tea and have a rest. We stopped at a shop to buy bottled water because the tap water at the hotel (and presumably in Berlin as a whole) had an unpleasant taste that tainted the tea. It was good to have proper tea again! In the evening we sallied forth again, looking for somewhere to have dinner. Near the hotel is an area called the Brauhaus Mitte where, as the name suggests, there was once a brewery. Today there are shops and restaurants. We were happy to find an Indian restaurant where we enjoyed a good meal and a chat with the owner. I did take a photo of the restaurant but it turned out blurred and I am too ashamed to show it to you!
Fortified by dinner, we set out to take some night pictures. We knew this ramble might be a long one but it turned out far longer than we expected! This is the (mis-)adventure I mentioned at the beginning.
We took some photos of the Brandenburger Tor, or Brandenburg Gate, that symbol of Germany and German history, famously isolated behind the Berlin Wall during the years when the city was partitioned. It is not at present seen to best advantage as there is building work going on around it. One needs to go close in order to have an uncluttered view but then, because of its size, there are problems of perspective. It reminded me somewhat of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, perhaps because of its size and grandiosity. Curiously, the horses seem to be smiling but I am sure that that is because the sculptor has represented them panting with effort.
We paid a visit to Potsdamer Platz which has a special place in the history of Germany and its partition. The famous Berlin Wall that was built from August 1961 to isolate East Berlin from West Berlin ran through this square. Today the line of the Wall is permanently marked along the ground, crossing roads and pavement, though the Wall itself has completely disappeared – all but for a small section that has been preserved as a memorial.
These pieces of the Wall’s fabric still stand as a chilling reminder of the insanity that ensues from political bigotry carried to an extreme. Between the sections, information panels tell the story of the Berlin Wall and its final destruction.
We noticed that there was engineering work in progress and that some tram routes were barred as a result, but apart from taking photos of what seemed a picturesque scene, we did not see any connection between this and our own situation. We, after all, were about to return to the hotel by the U-Bahn. It turned out that we were wrong!
After several unsuccessful attempts to complete our journey by U-Bahn, we realized that some of those routes were also closed for works. The simplest solution was to take to the tram system. We boarded a tram which we knew should go close to our hotel, and settled down for the ride. After a while, we began to feel that the journey was becoming rather a long one and that the view from the windows was not one we recognized. The dreadful truth finally dawned on us: our tram had been diverted! We were heading away from our hotel instead of towards it!
We jumped off the tram like rats abandoning a sinking ship and looked around to assess the situation. We were a long way away from where we wanted to be. The one thing in our favour was that the giant TV tower, the Fernsehturm, which is close to the hotel, was tall enough to be seen. All we had to do was make our way towards it and all would be fine. And, indeed, in the end all was fine (despite it seeming at times that the tower was getting further away rather than closer!) and after a long walk we eventually reached our hotel, tired and footsore as we had not dared to trust ourselves to a clearly untrustworthy public transport system!
Update September 22nd 2013
Contrary to what I originally stated, the word Reichstag is still in use. From its inception until the end of the Second World War, Reichstag was used to mean both the building and the legislative body that sat within it (compare our use of the word Parliament). In modern times, Reichstag refers exclusively to the building, while the governing body of the Federal Republic is called the Bundestag.
Thanks are due to Peter Harvey (see his comment) for the correction.
Tuesday, June 18th 2013
Today is our last day in Berlin and our day of return to London. Our flight does not leave until the evening and so we want to make the most of the earlier part of the day, though taking it a little easy after our busy time yesterday.
Perhaps the most famous feature of the district is the Schloss Charlottenburg, or Charlottenburg Palace. This was built, starting in 1699, by Elector Friedrich III who later styled himself Friedrich I of Prussia. At first intended as a summer residence for his wife Sophia Charlotte, subsequent development in the 17th and 18th centuries turned it into an elegant and commodious royal palace.
Unfortunately, the palace was severely damaged during the Second World War and extensive rebuilding took place, starting in the 1950s. The palace can be visited but that was not our object today. We had another venue in view.
That, of course, did not prevent us from taking a look around and discovering a few curiosities such as this post or obelisk of sandstone bearing the legend “1 meile von Berlin”, thus testifying to its erection at a time before the metric system came into use. It is an example of what is called in German a meilenstein, literally a ‘milestone’, and is thought to have been made around 1798 on the orders of Queen Louise of Prussia to stand outside her window at the Charlottenburg Palace. It is obviously not now in its original position, having been moved here in 1905. The original metal globe was replaced in 1990.
When we were almost at our destination, we spotted this monument in stone and bronze, topped by the statue of a man in military uniform, standing in a haughty if somewhat histrionic pose. Fortunately for ignorant foreigners such as we, there is a plaque identifying the subject of the memorial as Prince Friedrich Heinrich Albrecht of Prussia and giving his dates as 1809-72.
On a nearby corner was the building we had come to visit. Apart from the red banners, and a small board, the establishment is very discreet about its purpose. Note the rather prominent cupola, which appears again below.
Inside the building, the cupola presents as a ceiling dome admitting light into the central area where there are no windows.
Inside, the building is quite impressive, with a swirling staircase winding around a broad stairwell and lit from above by the dome. The decor, however, is cool, even bland – deliberately so, I imagine, so as not to distract attention from the works of art. There were paintings by a several artists and a smaller number of sculptures. I enjoyed our tour immensely. In fact, I think I would say it was one of the highlights of our trip. Happily, the museum allows visitors to take photographs, so I can show you some of the art works we saw.
The main set of paintings was a broad selection of works by Pablo Picasso of which the above is one. I was quite enchanted by this because I think we tend to have a rather stereotypical view of Picasso – colourful but fish-eyed portraits and extravagant cubist renderings – but here was a spectrum of the artist’s works, giving some impression of the range of his production. I have had to be selective here and have chosen just a few pictures.
The pictures and sculptures are helpfully labelled in German, French and English. Usually, the content is the same in each language but in the case of the above painting (click it to see a larger version), the English merely reads Still Life on a Piano, while both the French and German give more details, “Bottle, absinth glass, fan, pipe, violin, clarinet upon a piano”.
The above two paintings perhaps represent the aspect of Picasso that we are most familiar with and might even be considered what we think of as “Picasso”. So, what about these?
Done with pencil on paper, this portrait is not only realistic (Picasso being realistic? Phew!) but has a wealth of telling detail and captures something of the sitter’s personality. It is quite a sensitive rendering.
I find this picture striking also because of its naturalness, despite a certain formalism and a (not unpleasant) sculptural quality (for an interesting comparison, see the Laurens sculpture below).
And finally, who can resist this vigorous portrayal of a cockerel? Despite the “plaice-eyes” (both eyes on the same side of the head), it captures the bird’s naive belligerency to a tee. I apologize for the slight deformation caused by the angle of view1.
There were pictures by other artists, though the greatest number were by Picasso. Invidiously, perhaps, I am going to allow one painting to stand for all the others, this one by Joan Miró.
Among the sculptures I have picked out two pieces that I liked. Knowing my tastes, you may be surprised at my selecting the above work (other than perhaps as an example of how not to do sculpture!) but I found that the artist had so well captured the animal’s character, that the sculpture was so “cat”, that I liked it. Would I have this in my home? Yes, definitely.
I also liked this sculpture by Henri Laurens. Does you see, as I do, a certain similarity (despite the different media) between it and the Picasso painting above?
Next door to the Berggruen Museum is another gallery, the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg (the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection). While I don’t doubt that this is every bit as fine and important as the Berggruen, it didn’t capture my enthusiasm to the same degree. I contented myself with photographs of this intriguing Ancient Egyptian structure, a monumental temple gate, dating from the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus, who is pictured on it. The stones were rescued from the then newly built Aswan Dam, whose valley and everything in it was about to be flooded, and later gifted to the Federal Republic by the government of Egypt.
Out in the streets once more, we found this delightful old public pump, with moulded decorations including these seemingly playful frogs. How old is it? There was no date on it and I can only guess that it is roughly contemporary with street pumps in Britain, that is, the later Victorian period. We noticed that the handle is not chained or immobilised as is usually the case in Britain and wondered whether the pump still worked. Yes, it did!
Time, however, was moving on. We had to keep in mind that we needed to return to the hotel to collect our bags and make our way from there to the airport, allowing time for the tedious business of checking in and undergoing the baggage search.
There was also the little matter of lunch. We started walking and eventually came to an area where there was a pleasant park and some shops. In one of the shops we bought the makings of a picnic lunch and went across the road to eat this in the park.
We can say that this was the end of our Berlin trip because the rest of the day was spent in the business of collecting our bags, going through airport security, flying to London and taking the long tube ride home.
What were my impressions of our trip? If I am honest, I did not take to Berlin. Its galleries and museums aside, I found it a brash and noisy city full of big but characterless modern architecture. Traces of the older, much celebrated Berlin, were few and far between. I was not sorry to leave it.
Having said that, I must also say that even before we left London, I was already prejudiced against Berlin for various reasons, including matters of health. In the end, these imagined difficulties proved to be groundless but my neurotic animus remained to overshadow the trip. Tigger is determined to return to Berlin and perhaps next time I will be able to face it with more equanimity and perhaps find in it the interest and charm that I missed this time around. Our visit to the Berggruen Museum was certainly a good omen in that respect.
1Photographing pictures in art galleries poses certain problems. Ideally, you need to place the camera smack in front of the picture, the centre of the lens aligned with the centre of the picture and at a certain distance from it, to avoid perspective effects. Unfortunately, because of the uneven lighting in galleries (e.g. spot lights in an otherwise darkened setting) and the fact that pictures are often protected by glass, reflection may limit the possible camera positions. In a word, you sometimes have to sacrifice angle to avoid reflection.