Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The discreet charms of Berlin

As the KLM Airlines’ Boeing 737 descended through a bank of white cumulus approaching the Tegel airport in Berlin, the outskirts of a sprawling city began to reveal its green expanse. Windmills, gardens, beautifully manicured parcels of land, houses with colorful rooftops, welcomed my sight. It was a bright sunny day and I was ready to be captivated by the charms of Berlin.

After the plane landed at Tegel, it was a smooth check out. Tegel, compared to the airports in Singapore or Hong Kong, seemed like an airport from the past. The building is not very imposing and with its square-shaped glass windows with curved edges, it looks like a double-decker train necklacing an airfield. Berlin has two more airports but one of them has now been converted into a park. The other one is being modernized by the government.

I had already cleared immigration at Amsterdam, my first stop in a Schengen country in the European Union. In twenty minutes, I collected my checked-in luggage and I was out of the airport. I was in Berlin to attend a conference, so the conference organizers had sent me a limousine for pick up. The driver of the spacious VW limo was an English speaking Croat. We chatted throughout the half hour drive to my hotel in the Eastern part of Berlin.

I mentioned to the driver how green Berlin was. He perked up and said Berlin is one of the greenest cities in Europe, and is dotted with many parks (later, I was to learn that every tree in Berlin is counted and numbered). He mentioned the Tiergarten, Berlin’s Central Park, a great place to relax. It was established as the Prussian Royal Family’s private hunting ground.

I soon learnt that Berlin abounds in tree and Turks. It is the world’s fifth largest Turkish city—my guide jokingly told me.

The views on either side of the autobahn reminded me of Delhi—I was looking at an old city that had been bombed out during the Second World War, and did not have many skyscrapers (except in some sexier parts of the city), and was not as squeaky clean as modern cities such as Singapore. But in its own way, Berlin seemed to have used steel and bricks and mortar to patch itself up, without thinking much about the postmodern city aesthetics. Berlin’s every corner smelled of its rich history.

Berlin was in mid-autumn and pavements were littered with yellow leaves. Temperatures were around 12 degrees C. One hardly felt cold inside the buildings but once you stepped outside, you could feel the chill in the air.

Travelling in the city was easy—the city boasts of a great bus and train network, apart from taxis and bicycles that are so common on the streets. I could buy my S Bahn tickets from the hotel’s concierge. At the station, I didn’t find any gantries. All I had to do was to stamp my ticket at a machine and board the train. It’s that simple.

I had half a day to visit the historical sites of the city, so I decided to book an Insider Tours’ Famous Walk—a four hour walk through the main sites of Berlin. Just for 12 Euros (a decent meal at MacDonald’s costs you about 5 to 6 Euros). One has many different kinds of tours to choose from: Bike tours, Cruise and Walk Tours and I even saw an ad for motorized Segway tours.

My tour Guide David spoke excellent English. A thin and tall young man, David is a Swede. “I came to Germany six years ago and fell in love with this city,” he told us, a bunch of American and Australian tourists.

We started our tour from Hackescher Markt, just next to Alexanderplatz. The tour started with the Altes Museum and Berliner Dome and then we marched on to the Unter den Linden and Postdamer Platz—the most widely known boulevards in Germany. The city’s great historical sites are spread around this central artery of Berlin, this avenue “under the Linden trees”: The Royal Cathedral, Lustgarden, Museum Island, the Berlin War, Checkpoint Charlie, Hitler’s Bunker, the ruins of the SS and Gestapo Headquarters, Location of East Germany’s people’s uprising (June 17th, 1953), Babelplatz, Reichstag, Branderburg Gate and Pariser Platz.

The Branderburg Tor looks magnificent, a proud monument that had seen so many victors pass through it. Personally, I was fascinated by Babelplatz and the Memorial for the Murdered Jews. Babelplatz, right opposite the Humbildt University, was where the Nazis had burnt the books (On May 10, 1934, the Nazis burnt books by authors considered perverted or dangerous to the party). Now a stunning memorial lies underground beneath the spot where the book-burning (Bucherverbrennung) took place—a see-through square-shaped sealed white room with empty book shelves.

The other impressive spot is the Denkmal fur die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe). At a stone’s throw from the Reichstag and Brandenburg Tor, this controversial memorial was designed by New York architect Peter Eisenmen. It is a field of 2,711 concrete pillars, all of different heights, slightly leaning off centre—all built on an undulating field of concrete slabs. Walking through this claustrophobia-evoking petrified field, I felt lost in a labyrinth—like a rat in a maze, sad and hopeless. But I could also see children playing over the slabs and young lovers patting each other in this gray stone field.

You come to a city with your own expectations; like unexplained dreams, you carry some of its images plucked off media you have been exposed to. When I was strolling around the streets of Berlin, I was looking for visuals from Jason Bourne movies or The Reader (a 2008 Berlin-based film adapted from the 1995 German novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink). I found bits and parts of it here and there—the S-Bahn rides, walls with graffiti and 20th century housing blocks with interlocking internal courtyards. But to do justice to Berlin’s history, it is a city that, for its full revelation, demands time (there are over 160 museums in Berlin, including one dedicated to erotica). Unfortunately, I didn’t have that much time. So, I returned from Berlin promising myself a detailed tour in future with my family.

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