BERLIN BY DAY, BERLIN BY NIGHT
ON A CULTURAL TRIP TO BERLIN NIGEL ROBINSON FOUND OUT THAT HE COULDN’T ESCAPE THE PAST. HE COULDN’T ESCAPE THE CITY’S EXCITING AND DIVERSE GAY SCENE EITHER…
You can’t escape the past in Berlin. Maybe you shouldn’t. Over the years it’s been the capital of a militaristic Prussian empire, a hotspot of “divine decadence” during the roaring 1920s, the capital of the Third Reich, a Cold War flashpoint and divided city, and a byword for all kind of excess, gay, straight and everything inbetween. As someone once said, the city is constantly changing, condemned always to becoming and never to being. Today, it’s the hipster capital of Germany, with young entrepreneurs and creatives drawn here by the low rents and laidback lifestyle, as well as arguably the best club scene in Europe and one of the most diverse gay scenes in the world.
Just as you can’t escape the past, so you can’t escape the Berlin Wall either. Except that you can. Most of the Wall has been bulldozed away, leaving hardly any trace of the 166 kilometres of concrete, barbed wire and anti-personnel mines, which once tore the city in two. But what Berliners call the “Wall in the Head” still remains, and there’s a marked difference between the more staid and self-satisfied western districts of Berlin, and the edgier districts of what used to be the old east, like Friedrichshain and Mitte.
You’ll find one of the biggest remaining pieces of the Wall at the East Side Gallery (Mühlenstrasse, eastsidegallery-berlin.de) on the banks of the Spree River. It’s a bit of a cheat in a way, as all the original graffiti which used to adorn the wall on the west side has long since been removed and replaced with street art from artists from all over the world, but as one of the biggest open-air art galleries you’ll see, it’s well worth a visit. For a better feel of what the Wall was really like, check out the Wall Memorial at Bernauerstrasse (berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en).
To get an idea of what life was like in the days of the Wall, head on down to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum (Friedrichstrasse 43-45, mauermuseum.de) whose permanent exhibition charts some of the way people tried to escape from East Berlin and into the West, from secret compartments in cars to hot-air balloons and even mini-submarines. You can buy officiallycertified mini-pieces of the Berlin Wall to take home with you. The original Checkpoint Charlie crossing point has long since gone, but, if you like, you can join the other tourists posing to have their pictures taken with resting actors dressed as American or Russian soldiers.
Just down the road, and much less tacky, is the Jewish Museum (Lindenstrasse 9-14, jmberlin.de) one of the city’s most popular museums, housed in a futuristic zig-zag zinc structure, built around three axes and which takes you through two millennia of Jewish history and culture in Germany. Among the permanent installations are Fallen Leaves, or the Memory Void, where you walk over 10,000 faces punched out of metal sheets representing all the victims of war. At one end of the museum is the Holocaust Tower, a tall and cold tower, in darkness apart from tiny shafts of natural light coming from an aperture high in the roof. Entering the tower with the door being clanged shut behind you is a chilling experience of confinement.
Heading north from the Jewish Museum and Checkpoint Charlie takes you to chic Friedrichstrasse, one of the city’s main shopping boulevards and home to the luxury department store Galleries LaFayette (Friedrichstrasse 76- 78, galerieslafayette.de) as well as branches of some of the higher end international brands, luxury car showrooms and five-star hotels.
You’ll have no problems, nor lack of opportunity, in flexing that plastic on Friedrichstrasse, or its main rival the