This is another world. A unique feeling of freedom everywhere. Art and bicycles on every corner, impressive architecture, busy neighbourhoods, green parks popular in the late afternoon, international and environmentally-friendly gastronomy, as well as a young, cosmopolitan and multicultural population.
Strenght in union
Berlin is remarkable, and one of the most intense aspects is how reflections of the war that affected this European capital are found in the buildings, streets and squares, and in the vestiges of the wall that divided it into East and West, which neither history nor Berliners have forgotten. They accept it, as demonstrated by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, to remember what happened in the first half of the 20th century and educate younger generations. Those that play in that labyrinth of stone columns don’t know its real meaning but one day will realise that the place is part of the city’s blood. What’s left of the Berlin Wall became the East Side Gallery (the world’s longest outdoor art gallery), with around 1,500 metres of paintings that reflect political change after the wall fell in 1989. The wall remains significant.
What would it be like to live in a city literally divided into two republics (the Federal west, and the Democratic east)? This is also a demonstration of strength from a people who got back on their feet and, now reunified, wanted to move on and enjoy the freedom that symbolises the constantly mutating German capital. Another reminder is Checkpoint Charlie, on the Friedrichstrasse, the only gateway to the then East Berlin accessible to foreigners until the fall of the wall.
At the heart of this European epicentre, the world clock of the huge Alexanderplatz tells multicultural time. Many come to stay and experience a peerless lifestyle and atmosphere, where the classic and contemporary co-exist. From Hauptbahnhof, which hosts the central station, we navigate the River Spree searching for the symbiosis between German history and modern architecture. In the government district, with bridges connecting east and west, we find the Paul-Löbe-Haus, complemented by the Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus on the other bank. Both buildings form a federal row, the architectural symbol of Germanic unity. Next door, another emblem of democracy: the Reichstag, home to parliament. Inside, Norman Foster designed a glass dome where thousands of visitors enjoy a wonderful panoramic view of the city. Other important landmarks are the Pergamon and Bode museums (both belong to the Museum Island complex) and the theatre that is home to the Berliner Ensemble company, founded by the playwright Bertold Brecht, as well as the majestic Berliner Dom cathedral. Then there’s the famous Television Tower, a compass that enters every scene. On terra firma, the 100 bus is the most authentic representative of Germany’s reunification, being the first route to link East to West. It offers an easy and cheap way to see Berlin’s attractions. There’s space for everyone here and everyone is welcome. Ich bin ein Berliner!
eastsidegallery-berlin.com \\\ www.smb.museum/museen-und-einrichtungen/pergamonmuseum \\\ www.smb.museum/museen-und-einrichtungen/bode-museum \\\ berliner-ensemble.de \\\ berlinerdom.de \\\ tv-turm.de
Stumbling upon Photoautomat cabins is a regular occurrence in Berlin. Hidden behind every curtain there’s a flash that flashes. The result is spat out five minutes later: a strip of paper and four different portraits, in black and white. Enjoying this experience is becoming artists in the land of artists. One of these machines can be found in the Kulturbrauerei, previously a 19th-century brewery and now a cultural centre in Prenzlauer Berg, in the old East. In addition to the different venues (like RambaZamba, a theatre for actors with Down’s syndrome), restaurants, museums (the Museum in der Kulturbrauerei has an exhibition on day-to-day life in the Democratic Republic) and eight cinema screens, there’s a street food market on Sunday. “It’s one of those rare places where tourists and locals meet”, says Berlin on Bike guide, Sascha Möllering, who pedals westwards with us, not before seeing the bohemian buzz of Oderberger Straße, in Prenzlauer Berg.
We visit Wedding, “still dirty and wild”, home to artists and immigrants (as the satellite dishes on balconies indicate). In this neighbourhood “there’s always a world behind the houses”, in the courtyards, which host creative areas. Like Panke Höfe, a parallel universe reflected in the art gallery, bar, club, studios and street art that decorates it on the banks of the River Panke. Sascha says that “places like this are very Berlin”, as is a crematorium turned into a “research spot for experimentation”. Silent Green has a film archive, rehearsal rooms and design studios, as well as other activities. Still in Wedding, old wagon and tram sheds have been reinvented to house the contemporary dance centre Tanzfabrik Berlin.
On the opposite side, there’s another busy Berlin district, Neuköln. A mix of old and new, it’s where folk from all over meet. The large immigrant community typical of the area now contrasts with students, creatives and clubbing hotspots: in addition to being a community garden and outdoor cinema, Klunkerkranich, on the terrace of the Arcaden shopping centre, provides a great view of the city. A few metro stops on the way to Kreuzberg, getting off at Kotbusser Tor, there’s another Photoautomat. We get to the heart and soul of Berlin. Nightlife, gastronomy and a real cultural melting pot. Kreuzberg has everything that the German capital represents.
City as canvas
On the streets, in the metro stations, on the buildings, street art is everywhere. Almost like outdoor galleries. And they are. Just like the DJs who want to perform at the techno Mecca, at any price, Berlin is also a Mecca of street art and the walls are a mapa mundi of countless artists. In Kreuzberg, south of the River Spree, as soon as we get to Oranienstraße, Australian Dov Selby, who runs the Fork & Walk food tour, says that the neighbourhood highlights the “real power” of this city that is “so free”. On that street, where David Bowie and Iggy Pop used to hang out in the 1970s at the SO36 music club (the area post code), the subcultures thrive while the metro moves on the surface. The ultimate urban scenario.
The museum that documents this legacy is Urban Nation, in Schöneberg. Since 2013, it has hosted work by international artists, including the Portuguese Vhils, who has added to the Berlin landscape. Active in the community, the museum can also be appreciated from outside, via the mural on the façade. One of the two buildings subject to intervention has a gallery that belongs to Urban Nation, which organises educational projects.
Other new institutions occupy old historic buildings. In 2014, the C/O Berlin foundation, created by photographer Stephan Erfurt, the designer Marc Naroska and architect Ingo Pott, moved to Amerika Haus, a place of cultural exchange between the USA and Germany built in the late-50s. Dedicated particularly to photography, it has exhibited the work of Annie Leibovitz, Martin Parr, Nan Goldin, Sebastião Salgado and Polaroids by film director, Wim Wenders. Another portrait master is Berliner Helmut Newton has a foundation an impressive collection just a few metres away, at the Photography Museum.
Near the busy East Side Gallery, at what is left of the Berlin Wall, where there are 118 murals painted by artists from 21 countries in 1990, we linger in a kind of improvised city, with wooden structures occupied by artists. On the banks of the Spree, the Holzmarkt boasts galleries, a music school and a theatre in a single place, with food, a biergarten with craft beer and urban allotments.
After work time is serious business for Berliners, who fill the streets and various parks. Close to the Brandenburg Gate and watched over by the Victory Column, where the angel from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire surveyed Berlin, the Tiegarten is the city’s lungs and an ideal place to relax. It attracts nudists who read and sunbathe on the grass, looking like some impressionist painting.
This free spirit can also be found at Mauerpark, located in the area between the two walls that divided the city – no man’s land –, home of the watchtowers. On Sunday there’s a flea market with countless stalls selling things like vinyl and war memorabilia. People have barbecues, drink beer, play basketball, court better halves. There are musicians and drums, as well as the ever-popular karaoke, which draws a crowd.
South of Kreuzberg, in Tempelhofer Feld, a surprise: the old airport (opened in 1927, rebuilt by the Nazis in the 1930s), 386 hectares of open space. The runways are now used by walkers and cyclists, grass used for picnics and yoga. The main building opens just once a year, or for guided tours, and has three access points: Columbiadamm, Tempelhofer Damm and Oderstraße.
Another place with history is the Volkspark Humboldthain, designed by the landscape architecture Gustav Meyer and dedicated to the natural historian Alexander von Humboldt, adorned with a rose garden. One of its hills was once a bunker during World War II (there are guided tours). The top of the platform (one of the city’s highest points) was one of the last scenes of battle in Europe, in 1945 (where the trapped soldiers removed their uniforms to blend in with the population). Young people meet here to talk and play sport, enjoying a great view in the company of the German Reunification Monument.
Green and ecological
There’s a commitment to sustainability. Most people cycle. All hours of the day. There are countless bike lanes and drivers respect cyclists.
Here, being modern means being healthy, so there are many vegetarian and vegan restaurants. One of them, the Daluma, in Mitte, uses sustainable resources, from ingredients to packaging. Not to mention Stephan Hentschel, the second chef in Germany to earn a Michelin star two years ago with an exclusively vegetarian menu. Or the first supermarket of the Veganz chain, which opened in Friedrichshain in 2011. Every Thursday in Prenzlauer Berg, in Ökomarkt, farmers sell organic produce picked and harvested that day. Ecological awareness also involves the catwalk. Berlin Fashion Week, which occurs twice a year, hosts discussions on fashion and the environment.
Kreuzberg’s alternative and diverse culture has also encouraged various projects that make Berlin ever greener. Outside Moritzplatz station, in the heart of the neighbourhood, we find the urban gardening initiative, Prinzessinnengärten, which brings the community together. Children and adults participate in planting and bee-keeping. And you can buy what is picked, sponsor a flower bed or enjoy things made in the garden café.
Himmelbeet is another of these projects: in Wedding, people get together to plant things. This can also be done in Tempelhofer Feld, which has an urban allotment, ideal to relax, surrounded by nature.
by Manuel Simões /// photos Marisa Cardoso
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