Berlin: Introduction

  • © VincentMosch, iStockphoto.com

    © VincentMosch, iStockphoto.com

DISCOVER BERLIN!

Berlin attracts creative people from all over the world as if by magic. No other city in Europe has as much art and culture to offer! No matter whether it is art, dance, theatre or music, the cultural scene in Berlin provides a stage for international stars, and also acts as a breeding ground for talented youngsters to develop their skills and become the real avant-garde themselves.

With more than 150 concert halls, theatres and other stages, three opera houses and around 200 museums and art collections, Berlin has an enormous variety of cultural institutions. Apart from the Museum Island with its magnificent exhibits, the treasures found in the more than 400 small galleries are equally unique.

This has made Berlin one of the most important cities in the art-business world. For the people of Berlin, culture is not merely the State Opera and Philharmonie but also the countless concert clubs and tiny theatres ‘round the corner’ where superb performances are often held and seats are surprisingly cheap.

Berlin is famous worldwide for its feverish nightlife with more than 200 clubs, innumerable bars, cafés and pubs. There are no set closing times and most places stay open until the early hours of the morning – if they close at all. The ‘in’ districts of Mitte, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg, with their varied theatre, club and pub scene, are typical of this metropolis’ international orientation.

Despite the burden of history Berlin is growing back together again 

Today, you hardly ever get the feeling that this city was once divided by a wall. In the past, however, you didn’t need a compass to work out where the East stopped and the West began. The wall that ran through the centre of the city from 1961 to 1989 could really not be missed. In the one half there was East Berlin, the capital city of the German Democratic Republic that came under the influence of the Soviets and, in the other half, the walled-in city of West Berlin under the protection of the western allies France, Great Britain and the USA.

Now, more than 20 years after the Fall of the Wall, visitors to the city can barely see the difference in a cityscape that once developed differently as a result of the two political systems. Many of the prefabricated concrete buildings which were typical of the GDR in the eastern part of the ctiy have been revamped. They look so surprisingly modern and cosy that living on the 8th floor of a building on Alexanderplatz is now considered chic. And, when you stand at Checkpoint Charlie – the erstwhile Allied border crossing on Friedrichstrasse – you will see that the former eastern sector is dominated by luxurious business premises and boutiques while a certain dreariness has spread across the west.

With a population of around 3.4 million, the new – and old – capital Berlin is still in a period of upheaval. Enormous efforts have been made since the reunification of Germany to create an architecturally representative capital city. There have been continuous building, restoration and revitalisation activities everywhere. Potsdamer Platz was Europe’s largest building site in the 1990s but has since successfully established itself as a new city centre. The Sony Center’s tented roof is now regarded as one of the city’s new landmarks.

Berlin is exceedingly proud of its glass main railway station – Europe’s largest – that was opened in 2006. Since 2008, an enormous multi-purpose indoor arena, the O2 World, in the GDR’s former main station – the Ostbahnhof – has drawn huge crowds for pop concerts and the basketball games of the first-division team Alba Berlin. A new office and commercial district is growing up around it. After the demolition of the Palast der Republik, the former seat of the East German parliament, plans are underway for the former royal palace to rise from the ashes and become the home of the ‘Humboldt Forum’ with museums for non-European cultures and a range of other scientific institutions and libraries.

In the new seat of power

Even sceptical Berlin residents are proud of the successful architectural solutions devised for the government district. From the dome of the Reichstag you can see to Potsdamer Platz in the south, the monumental glass roof of the main station to the north, the Federal Chancellery to the west and the offices of the MPs to the east.

Many politicians and their advisers walk to their parliamentary debates and you will be surprised at how many famous people you will come across in the nearby restaurants and cafés. There is something else that is only possible in a city like Berlin: first and foremost, people are thought of as people. Whether somebody is famous or not is purely secondary. Live and let live – that’s Berlin’s motto.

People of 186 nationalities live in Berlin. The dialogue with Eastern Europe in particular has enriched Berlin’s cultural life. DJs from Bucharest work the turntables, dance companies from Kiev show their new productions and authors come from Warsaw to promote their books. At least 200,000 Russians and Poles, together with Ukrainians and Czechs live in Berlin where it can be witnessed first hand how a divided country is growing together, and how Europe is becoming more unified – after all, Berlin is the only capital city in Europe that is located both in the east and west!

Many Russians and Ukrainians who have settled in Berlin are Jewish and this has led to everyday Jewish culture once again finding its rightful place in the city. If you stroll around the area near Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin Mitte, you will come across a Jewish school and cafés and restaurants serving Jewish and oriental specialities. On the other hand, life in the former western inner-city areas, especially Kreuzberg and Wedding, is characterised by the Turkish way of life. You can see large Turkish families bartering for crates of aubergines and grapes at the markets or discussing things with friends while traders praise their goods at the top of their voices. Quite an experience! 

Throughout Berlin’s 770-year history newcomers to the city have often brought innovative cultural and artistic impulses with them. Having set up home here, their customs and traditions have left a mark on the city, especially on the culinary sector. Bouletten (or Buletten), for example, is a French word for meatballs that have become a Berlin speciality.

In the past, people facing religious persecution in particular were drawn to the Spree as Prussia’s regents were known far and wide for their religious tolerance. In 1701, during the reign of Friedrich I, a church was built for the Protestant Huguenots – the French Cathedral – and St Hedwig’s Cathedral was built at the end of the 18th century as a Catholic house of worship for the Silesians. In 1886, Europe’s largest synagogue – with seating for 3200 people – was opened on Oranienburger Strasse. This was destroyed in World War II and has only been partially reconstructed. 

Over the years, Berlin has played a central role in world history on many an occasion. Memories of the Nazi dictatorship, the persecution of the Jews and the terrible consequences of World War II are kept alive with countless memorials and remembrance sites. Although the inner city was badly bombed, many historical buildings have now been preserved or reconstructed.

The State Opera Unter den Linden, Berliner Dom, the Schauspielhaus, as well as the German and French Cathedrals on Gendarmenmarkt are magnificent examples of this. And, there is the Museum Island with its unique ensemble of stately Classicist buildings with archaeological and art collections that are now all open to the public after the completion of lengthy reconstruction work.

Open spaces add an extra dimension to life in the city

Of course, the recent past has also left its mark. Many of the young people who live in, or visit, Berlin never experienced the divided city themselves. This makes memorials such as the Wall Documentation Museum on Bernauer Strasse or the Allies Museum in Zehlendorf more important than ever before.

The drone of a Douglas DC 3, a transport plane from the time of the airlift in 1948/49, when supplies to the western sector of the city had to be masterminded completely from the air as a result of the Soviet blockade, brings back memories of that period whenever it takes off – on special occasions – for flights over Berlin. French, English, Russian and American educational institutions and cultural centres still bear witness to the former presence of the four Allied occupying powers. Some Berlin children visit a French music school while others attend a college with a pronounced emphasis on Russian studies. 

The 400,000 trees that were planted along the streets to make life in the  walled-in city more bearable when West Berlin was an ‘island’ have also remained to this day. In fact, hardly any other comparable city has as many parks and green spaces as Berlin. And the residents of Berlin are similarly ‘green’ when they think about the quality of life in their city.

More than 43 per cent of all their journeys are made on foot or by bike and 26 per cent use public transport. Only half of all households have a car. An increasing number of visitors to Berlin can now be seen pedalling hard around the city, and there are an enormous number of places where bikes can be rented. Berlin is also the secret organic food capital with more specialist shops per head than any other German city.

The perfect place for the adventurous and creative

The only problem is the economy. Dealing with the results of 40 years as a divided city is not as easy to come to grips with as many people had hoped, and progress is painfully slow. In the past, the city was kept alive under two opposing political systems and, today, Berlin is still finding it difficult to exist without a stable, efficient economy that has evolved over decades.

In spite of the rapidly increasing number of jobs in the service sector, Berlin has to live with a current unemployment rate of 14 per cent. However, the city is making the most of its potential as a base for scientific institutions. The universities, specialist colleges, research and scientific organisations are important employers, providing around 200,000 jobs.

Business in the creative sector is also booming – especially in the IT field and design branch. In turn, this has had a positive effect on trade exhibitions as well. The world’s leading specialist trade fair for street and urban wear Bread & Butter is held in Berlin. Even stars like Justin Timberlake show their fashion labels here and, with a turnover of around 100 million euros, Bread & Butter generates an important economic impulse.

Time and time again people from Berlin have been successful in establishing themselves as avant-garde businesses and product designers. There are ideas everywhere, but Berlin is where they become a reality. And you may well feel the same as many local residents who, despite seeing their city day in, day out, continuously discover exciting new things around about and are often surprised at how much they didn’t know before. Berlin is like a lucky-dip – you never know what you’re going to come across next!


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