Charlie’s Checkpoint, Potsdam’s Bridge of Spies. Ku’damm’s boutiques and Kreuzberg’s clubs. Germany’s old capital and now Germany’s new capital combine in one great Prussian panorama. Jump on board as Simon Walton invites you to a Brandenburg Concerto.
What with Crossrail and HS2, Sizewell Reactor C, Heathrow Runway Three and the planes for HMS Elizabeth, you’d think Britain has the monopoly on infrastructure rupture. Not a bit of it. Berlin takes the biscuit. For the Leibniz of lateness, controversy and corruption, look no further than Berlin Airport. Once to be named after the chancellor and the neighbourhood, but amended to Flughafen International after it was realised that the city’s showpiece would be Berlin Billy Brandt Brandenburg. BBBB - or “Baby Baby” as the comedians call it at Cosmic and the Comedy Cafe, just two venues on Berlin’s English-language laughter scene. Yes, that eclectic reputation, cultivated since Weimar, through to reunification, cosmopolitan cabaret is what Berlin is all about.
Let’s not go there. Well, not until at least the end of this year, when, maybe Baby Baby will open. For now, it’s Tagel or maybe Schönefeld, or your overland journey, which is a cultural tour de force no matter what route you take.
Chances are you decadent Westerners will first happen upon a place that’s not quite the imperial capital, but once was the home of imperial princes. This is Potsdam, famous for its post-war conference and its cold war spy exchanges. The city has matured into, well, a worthy visit, but its many fine houses and public buildings are a little obscured by modern edifices which break up the regal lines of this royal burgh. Still, there are some fabulous palaces and places to visit, and a stroll down the tree-lined avenue of Brandenburger Strasse is worth a cool drink in summer and a hot one in winter. Carry on to the Dutch Quarter - painstakingly restored and, although not indigenous in style, it’s indicative of the beauty of Potsdam.
Set-jetting groups will not want to miss out on a tour of Potsdam’s Babelsberg Studios. As famous in Germany as Pinewood or Elstree, this cinematic wonderland has been home to everything from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Rhys Ifans’ Berlin Station. Fans of the cult espionage series can spot the locations around town, here in Potsdam, and up in the city.
Just like Valerie and Daniel, the CIA spooks, you can make contact with diplomats around the swanky villas of Charlottenburg, or exchange secret passwords during a trip to the Palace. This, after all, was once the wealthiest city in its own right in the Brandenburg region.
To Berlin itself then, and a mission inspired by those under cover agents. A spy-stoked stroll for you, if you start at the Adlon Hotel Mitte and head for its stablemate, the swanky Kempinsky by the Brandenburg Gate on Unter den Linden. Maybe start by cunningly spotting your counterpart tail from the other side - by pretending to browse through the shops and market stalls on Alexanderplatz. This former heart of East Berlin has lost none of its charm, and is still as welcoming as a Stasi interrogation squad. Still, it’s the people that count, and you can count on the people in Alexanderplatz.
Avoid those decadent Western places - like Kreuzberg Fried Chicken, TK Karl Max and StasiBucks. Keep the needle point of the Fernsehturm in sight. A difficult order to disobey, since the 1200-foot high mast can be seen from every quarter of metropolitan Berlin - and if you climb it, you’ll be able to do the same surveillance job.
Copyright Brian Harris/Alamy Stock Photo
See below you, your next landmark, the red roof of the thirteenth-century Marienkirche, a church that’s changed denominations more often than the name of the street upon which it stands - currently Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, but formerly named for Kaiser Wilhelm, the last German emperor, and famous for the First World War, being shot at by Annie Hall, and for being Queen Victoria’s eldest grandchild.
Slip past the Sea Life Centre and the Marx Engels Forum public park for a visit to the DDR Musuem, and a step back into the lives of others in the old communist state. The museum is right in the heart of the governmental district of former East Germany, and has a lovely spot, right on the banks of the Spree, opposite the Berlin Cathedral in teh middle of the river. Of all the Ost-politic opportunities in Berlin, this is the most authentic recreation of life behind the Wall.
Maybe there’s time for some string coffee and German cookies - it was the Berliners who invented them by the way, and cookie is an Americanisation of “kuchen”. You’ll find the Cathedral surrounded by museums. This is Musuem Island. You’ll even find another museum on the other side of the Palace Bridge - the quite superb German Historical Museum, formely the armoury for the Crown Prince’s Palace, which is across the road, and that road is Unter den Linden, the tree-lined icon of an avenue that epitomises Berlin.
Under the Linden trees
So, a wave to Fredrick the Great, up on his horse, just outside the fabulously columned Berlin State Opera - known to the citizens as Staatsoper Unter den Linden, or simply Lindenoper. Bibliophiles will marvel at the State Library over the road, but if we’re going to make that clandestine rendezvous, we better inconspicuously hurry on past the imposing Russian Embassy, check out the Brandenburg Gate and check in to the Kempinski. Although on the site of what was the most prestigious hotel in Berlin, the modern hotel is a building inspired by the original, and dates from 1997.
The site here was part of the ‘no-man’s land’ in the divided city. Now the only thing that needs dividing are the exquisite pastries served to order. We could go on about food all day (and night). We won’t - but we will say one thing: Currywurst. Have one from the street and you’ll be granted freedom of the city (possibly). Well, you’ll certainly have the Berliners singing your praises. So, at the open air public karaoke in Tiergarten, you can belt out the classics to your heart’s desire.
From Shakira to Sinatra, of all the songs about Berlin, it’s the one that isn’t about Berlin that takes your breath away. You may have been to Germany, seen the markets, eaten the food, driven the cars, but, as the Berliners say: you’ve never been to Berlin until you’ve been to Berlin. So make your plans now, the city that doesn’t need a wall to stand apart awaits you.
It’s not a day trip. By coach it’ll take around 13 hours from London. Ferry routes for non-metropolitan groups will deliver you to the mainland and take a few hours off that journey.
You might still want to stop over. The Dutch town of Venlo is so near the German border that local buses run right over into neighbouring Krefeld and Duisburg. It’s about six hours from here to a selfie in front of the Reichstag.
Copyright visitberlin Photographer Wolfgang Schlovien
If you seek to get away from it all, try a day trip through the Prussian heartland, over the Polish border to Hanseatic Szczecin (“Stet - chin”). The picture-perfect capital of Polish Pomerania, birthplace of Catherine the Great, and famous for the Chobry Embankment, Dukes’ Castle, and fourteenth-century St. James Cathedral. All this and Hull’s twin city too.