Home bases in Germany
Three historic cities on the move
I arrive at a ramshackle five-storey tenement building, its pale brick scarred with remnants of a former concrete facade. Flower beds edge grey asphalt in a front yard softened by vines and trees in spring leaf. Naked light bulbs on strings lead from the street to a front door flanked by potted silver birch saplings. So far, not so promising.
An equally faded painted sign above the door announces Clarchens Ballhaus, pasted with the note, “100 Jahre Hochbetrieb!” Literally, 100 years of feverish activity. I’m at Clarchens Ballhaus, the still-operating 100-year-old Berlin dance hall that has witnessed a microcosm of lurid history and some notorious Weimar-era faces.
On more feverish nights, outdoor tables populate the front yard. But tonight, the activity is all indoors. At ground level, dancers practise old steps while diners attack plate-dwarfing schnitzels and sip delicious German wines beside the parquetry dance floor.
Sepia photographs in the small foyer show a more elegant past. But upstairs, in the ornately panelled and mirrored salon, the glamour survives. Here, candlelight and crystal reflect a program of live music, including the regular “Gypsy restaurant”, Sunday concerts, dinners and dance classes. Clarchens even appears, momentarily, in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
And like Clarchens, Berlin has everything: vintage glamour, eye-popping graffiti, and sleek futuristic gleam in the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) and that Aladdin’s cave of wonders, KaDeWe department store.
German cities are at the cutting edge. Emerging from a dark past, the country lead by chancellor Angela Merkel is a bright light in an erratic world. Germany’s determination to examine its recent history, in museums and memorials, while celebrating its centuries-old artistic and intellectual heritage, is a powerful reason to visit.
Adina Apartment Hotels are good places to stay. This Hungarian-Australian family business has a long list of properties in Australia, New Zealand, Hungary and Denmark, and now seven in Germany, with a debut in Leipzig and a second in Hamburg planned for later this year. There’s an allure about a brand you know, with Englishspeaking staff and familiar facilities, as home bases for exploring. Adina’s German addresses make comfortable and, above all, comfortingly familiar boltholes at the heart of the sophisticated global metropolises of Berlin, Frankfurt and Nuremburg.
I begin my exploration where else but in Berlin. Adina has three properties here (all in the buzzing Mitte district), Hackescher Markt, Mitte and Checkpoint Charlie (where I’m staying). I arrive, with ice in the early spring air, to an interior of browns and burnt orange, timber, books and copper pots burnished by the reflected flames of an open fire. The apartment-hotel concept offers private address advantages, such as fully equipped modern kitchen and laundry facilities, with the hotel benefits of serviced rooms, 24-hour reception, heated pool, jacuzzi, sauna and gym, in-house restaurant, and breakfast and in-room dining.
Adina Checkpoint Charlie opened 10 years ago, with studios, twin and two-bedroom apartments, in what was an empty factory; original cream and green art-deco tiles glaze the walls of a central atrium now furnished with plants and cafe tables. Foyer cosiness continues in the brown-leather and velvet-furnished Alto restaurant and bar, where the menu ranges from Berliner Currywurst mit Pommes Frites to Coolangatta Steak Sandwich. A corner alcove, walls papered with belle epoque posters for absinthe, cognac and Grands Vins Mousseux, is a great place to retreat after a day out.
My Berlin address, in once-isolated communist East Germany, is now at the centre. City museums house cutting-edge contemporary design, Old Masters and German Expressionism; there are specialised medieval, Biedermeier and Bauhaus collections, artefacts from 2000 years of history at the German Historical Museum and, around the city, 30 palaces of the Prussian kings.
The city’s stratified history is excavated in the Berlin Story Museum (in a Hitler-commissioned air-raid bunker), Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum (covering two millennia), the Anti-War Museum (opened in 1925, destroyed by the Nazis and reopened by the founder’s grandson) and in Cold War collections, many in old communist buildings. The enigmatic 2711 concrete stelae of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the rose-scattered paving stones of the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under National Socialism are both centres for reflection.
Having explored Berlin’s 20th-century history on earlier visits, I’m headed for an older past. At the Pergamon Museum, one of five at the UNESCO heritage-listed Museum Island on the Spree River, I gaze at the towering lapis-blue and golden Ishtar Gate from Ancient Babylon.
Later, I stroll in the Tiergarten, queen of green city spaces and, also in Mitte, visit the beautiful Deutscher Dom, with the dynastic Hohenzollern Crypt beneath. In between, I detour to Kreuzberg for a delicious pit stop at quirky Chez Michel bistro and, by nightfall, I’m off to Clarchens.
My Museum Pass Berlin gives me entry to 40-plus museums and exhibitions; a Berlin Welcome Card allows city travel, attraction discounts, map and guide book.
My next stop, Frankfurt, at the end of a comfortable four-hour train ride, is the financial hub variously known as Bankfurt, Mainhattan or Manhattan on the Main. Frankfurt’s modernity is memorable, especially the tilted cloud-swept glass monolith of the European Central Bank, and parks, garden walkways, oak and beech woodlands enfold the centre in a 70km green belt. But it’s Frankfurt’s Old Town that I really want to see.
Frankfurt, like elsewhere in Germany, is a cityscape of restored history and the new. The small, faithfully rebuilt Old Town (Altstadt) has eight historic churches, stepped facade, multi-windowed and timber-laced houses, goldtipped clocks and coats of arms, green-copper domes and spires. Romerberg Square is at the centre, with the lacy spire of the Kaiserdom, 13th-century election seat of the Holy Roman Emperors, on one hand and, on the other, the red-brick, copper-tipped spire of Old Nikolai Church, home of 35 bells that ring out daily.
At Altstadt’s river’s edge, Haus Wertheym (“anno 1479”), was the only timber-framed building to survive the war and continues as a witness to historic brew-house hospitality. The old inn stands guard at Eiserner Steg, the iron footbridge crossing the River Main to the medieval district of Sachsenhausen. Here, cobbled streets, outdoor
German Historical Museum in Berlin, top; restaurant and bar at Adina Checkpoint Charlie, above left; studio room at Adina Frankfurt, above right; bar at Adina Nuremberg, below