Berlin. Who knew you were such a pretty boy under all of that glitter and grime?
God, it was cold. Biting sunlight through webs of black trees. Sunglasses and fur coat weather for the lipsticked ladies clip-clopping along Charlottenburg’s streets. In the cobbled square home to Opera Berlin and an enormous Norwegian fir brilliant with white lights, we took in the sights of Berlin’s fanciest Christmas market. The air was laced with sugar and gluhwein and all of a sudden we were a long way from the tower blocks, Toto.
But the tower blocks are only one side of Berlin. It’s a city of two sides, two stories, and it’s not even the predictable East/West divide of highrise and sleazy dives that might first come to mind. Visit the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe and pass a solemn moment. Play ‘spot the bullethole’ in a Pankow district wall. Then turn a corner and it morphs into a mirrorbox of seedy dreams: pushy drug dealers; tattoo parlours offering ‘intimate piercings’; 1970s instant photo booths glowing like neon shrines; a crooked finger beckoning. Even the TimeOut guide talks cheerfully of the plethora of sexual deviances Berlin caters to - the mucky pup.
It’s a city that’s faced its past and made its peace. Berlin’s grown-up now, baby, and it’s all concrete and clubs and flick-knives and rebellion. But it’s also cobbles and bistros and oysters and ermine.
In short, it’s bloody brilliant.
We stayed in an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, once a gritty working-class district and the old Jewish quarter but now a thriving alterna-culture hub which is apparently, you know, a thing. The action centres on the Kulturbrauerei, or Culture Brewery, a former - you’ve got it - brewery and now a veritable village of cultural stuff, like music venues and galleries. Draped in twinkly Christmas lights, it looked pretty special. The square, Kollwitzplatz, is named after controversial artist and feminist icon Kathe Kollwitz and is bordered by a beautiful Jewish graveyard, the oldest in the city. So far, so good.
I wanted history, really; wanted to wallow in some 20th century misery (I'd been reading a lot of Plath for my A-levellers' coursework, what can I say?) Bleak Luminal dreamscapes and long faces of Nazi murder in monochrome fastforwarding to the Wall Death Strip and daring Eastern Bloc escape stories. Berlin, you didn’t disappoint. The Topography of Terror marks the former site of the Secret Police Headquarters, although only the foundations remain. After the war, the Allies puzzled over what do with these cenotaphs of cruelty. Some, like in Cologne, became council offices and spent years hiding behind civic anonymity. This one was bulldozed in the 50s, and instead the Visitors’ Centre tells its tale of the Volk-myth, hatred and murder. Photographs everywhere. Shiny-shoed SS cadets and smiling Auschwitz guards smoking cigarettes and photographs of people other people loved, Jews and gypsies and homosexuals.
Berlin sprawls. We walked and walked and walked. Round to Checkpoint Charlie for a peek behind the Iron Curtain. Then to East Side Gallery for an open air graffiti exhibition of peace and tolerance slogans. To Tante Emma for an Erdinger. A saxophonist playing Careless Whisper at the Reichstag.
You get a feel for a city seeing it on the move I reckon, and we got caught up in the rush hour crush: edgy girls with blunt platinum fringes and interesting knitwear line the platforms; boys decked in Soviet fashions sporting tattoo sleeves and open beer bottles; hard-faced women in headscarves; posters for club nights with names like Suicide Circus and Deep Inside; sallow faces and trembling hands; metro trains scuttling like bright yellow bugs from and into the dark; halls of mirrors on wheels; unpronounceable station names and glorious, glorious Art-Deco turquoise tiles.
Berlin, you were a total thrill.