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Berlin Beyond Checkpoint Charlie

Berlin Beyond Checkpoint Charlie
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It came as a bit of a shock to be woken by four year-old Lotte impatiently jigging up and down crying ‘die Toilete ist kaputt’. With visions of the apartment flooding and drowning us, I staggered out of bed ready to use my non-existent plumbing skills, only to find that the toilet seat had come off its hinges, something even I could fix.

We were staying with friends in Spandau, one of Berlin’s many suburbs, known to us mainly as the place where Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy was held after the Nuremberg trials.  Like many parts of Berlin, the town is built around an ancient citadel, but today is mainly devoted to industry.  The big attraction to us is that it is served, as most places do in and around Germany’s capital, with an efficient rail and bus network.  Armed with a three-day pass we were able to travel far and wide, even on the ferries cruising along Berlin’s surrounding network of canals and lakes.

Most visitors to Berlin are mainly on popular short breaks and concentrate on attractions close to the city centre, such as Checkpoint Charlie.  This is where the Russian and American sectors came face to face, and became a flashpoint where Word War 3 could have started following some minor stand-off.  The Brandenburg Gate is the city’s focal point where the ancient thoroughfares meet, and during the height of the Cold War was where visiting American presidents affirmed their support for Germany’s struggle; this is where President Kennedy inadvertently called himself a doughnut when he said ‘ich bin ein Berliner’, a local delicacy.

Most of the wall that separated east and west has gone, apart from a short section covered by graffiti of a high standard.  Visitors looking for Nazi memorabilia are likely to be met by shrugs, locals try to forget their unhappy past and look towards the future. The only remaining link with Nazi-ism is the uncovered dungeon area of the Gestapo headquarter; Hitler’s bunker is appropriately lost under a car park.  Since re-unification on 3rd October 1990, Berlin has been transformed into a vibrant city, the nation’s capital, with national government once again based on the rebuilt Reichstag.

Berlin citizens prefer visitors to come and spend their money in and around its most famous street, the Kurfürstendamm, or Ku’damm where the K.D.W store, Berlin’s Harrods completes three kilometres of boutiques, bookstores and restaurants.  It was originally a riding path to the Grunewald hunting lodge, laid out by Elector-Prince Joachim II in the 16th century.

The most lasting memorial to the horrors of war stands a little to the side of the top end of the Ku’damm.  This is the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church dating from 1895.  Badly damaged in 1945, it like its associate twin, Coventry Cathedral has been restored as a symbol of the horrors of war.  The badly damaged spire and central section has been made safe, leaving it looking rather like a rotten tooth and like Coventry, a modern church has been built around the ruins.  Made entirely of glass blocks with a bell tower to one side of the ruins, and the octagonal nave on the other.  One has to admit that the result might not appeal to everyone, and in fact the resulting building is known as the ‘lipstick and powder compact’. It is only when one goes inside that its beauty becomes apparent.  Light streams through coloured glass in ever changing patterns matching the sun’s passing.  As a memorial built to a Kaiser, the modern church remembers those Germans who stood up to the cruelties of the Nazi regime and in a darkened corner, the Stalingrad Madonna is a memorial to soldiers who were forced to hold out against impossible odds.  Drawn by Surgeon/Pastor Kurt Reuber, it is a simple charcoal sketch on the back of a Russian military map, of mother and child and was placed near the entrance to a front-line hospital at Christmas 1942.  Whilst Reuber didn’t survive captivity somehow the poster’s touching beauty was saved by other prisoners held for decades in Russian prison camps.

It isn’t necessary to move far from the centre of Berlin to find interesting alternatives.  Charlottenburg Palace is a matter of minutes ride by bus from the memorial church and is where Berliners can enjoy their most accessible piece of countryside.  Built in 1695-99, it was where Prussian kings had their summer residence.  A smaller version of Versailles, it was expanded during the course of the following decades and can even boast its own ‘Hall of Mirrors’.  A large garden laid out in the English style runs down to the river and the Schinkel Pavilion, which Friedrich Wilhelm III built as a summer house.  Inside is a collection of delicate historical Meissen porcelain.

Many of the royal hunting lodges now serve as first class hotels and restaurants. Twenty-odd years ago we were fortunate in being able to explore the Brandenburg countryside surrounding East Berlin during the spring following re-unification. Then, everywhere people were still coming to terms with the new found freedom. We went out to Köpenick, a pretty satellite town built around an ancient castle a sort way to the east of Berlin.   Though attractive, it was once the headquarters of the feared Stasi, the DDR’s secret police.

We had been told to make our way to a spot in the middle of a dense forest, where, we were told, we would find an interesting restaurant.  After a struggle involving a bendy-bus with a changed route number, we did find it and it turned out to be where the party faithful met, pre and post 1945 beneath a cluster of stag and boar’s heads.  With the loss of its earlier clientele it was a rather sad place, but the service and food were still as good as in earlier times. No doubt it has since recovered its former glory.

Wansee, a lake to the west of Berlin is a long stretch of a widened part of the River Spree. It was popular with wealthy businessmen who built their houses there in earlier times and one of the houses is where the ‘Final Solution’ conference was held, consigning hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths.  Rather than destroy it the unmarked building is now a children’s holiday home.  Instead of travelling all the way to the coast, Berliners use Wansee as an inland seaside resort.  Sailing boats looking like butterflies flit up and down the lake and an artificial beach gives children somewhere to build sand castles.  There are also ferries up and down the lake, such as the one to the aptly named Pfaueninsel – Peacock Island, with its oddly shaped castle built by Friedrich Wilhelm II for his lover, Countess von Lichtenau in 1793.

Ferries passing beneath Glienicker Bridge (the Spy Swap Bridge), go as far as Potsdam where the Cecilienhof Palace is kept as a museum of the post war conference leading to the division of Europe.  The modern town still has links with the garrison town designed for the Prussian King Friedrich 1st, the Soldier King, but it was is son Frederich the Great who, by spending his wealth wisely and with taste, built Sanssouci Park a short walk from his father’s garrison church. Rather than build a copy of over-the-top Versailles, his garden was and still is a place to stroll and enjoy.  Starting by the heavily gilded Chinese Tea House, terraced paths climb to his attractively designed palace where this popular king was eventually buried as a symbol of German re-unification.  Fulfilling his wishes made two hundred years ago, his remains lie alongside the graves of his dogs.  He is buried not in an ornate tomb, but beneath a simple slab of stone, just like his dogs.  There is no flamboyant inscription, just his name Friedrich der Grosse and still in accordance with his wishes, flowers are not left on it, just potatoes!

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