Tuesday, October 11, 2011



A bird’s eye view captured over a weekend cannot do justice to any place and this of necessity is a snapshot judgement. What’s to like or dislike in Berlin? Well… there’s the sensation that the true heart of Berlin has been torn out to be replaced with huge – huge being operative word in Berlin – everything is huge: buildings, streets, plates of food, huge skyscrapers surrounding vast plazas: detailed granite paving and the 1000s of trees lining the streets in some way combat the city’s sterility.

The city is crammed with spectacular historical landmarks.

The main sights are:
  • Berliner Dom, main cathedral;
  • Reichstag (parliament building), built late 18th century to house German parliament, set on fire 1933 by Nazi supporters, bombed by Allies;
  • Victory Column, standing at 69 metres, built 1873 to commemorate military achievements;
  • Kaiser Wilhelm Church built 1880s;
  • Olympic Stadium, built specifically for 1936 Olympics;
  • Charlottenburg Palace, a Prussian monument and reminder of the imperial days of Berlin. It was build by Sophie Charlotte and King Friedrich 1 in late 1600s. She gives a new meanting to party girl as the plaace became famous for her parties which could go on for weeks, and it was where the phrase ‘stinking rich’ was coined, as at that time water touching the body was considered dangerous, so the partygoers used perfumes and powder liberally; also around the same time women aimed for waists no larger than the circumference of a grapefruit, achieved by tightly corseting little girls as young as 5 years!   
  • Topography of Terror – location of Gestapo and SS headquarters during Nazi rein
  • Jewish Museum.

Brandenburg Gate, one of Berlin’s iconic monuments with over two hundred years of history. A former symbol of the divided city, it drew visitors who used to climb an observation platform in order to get a glimpse of the world behind the Iron Curtain, on the other side of the barren “death-strip” which separated east from west Berlin.
While we’re in Pariser Plats (Paris Square, names after the city)  a cream Cadillac pulls up and a bridal party dismounts, plus photographer who lies on the cobblestones to get those memorable shots.

Checkpoint Charlie: Interestingly the name is based on the phonetic alphabet the Helmstedt checkpoint was called Alpha, Dreilinden Checkpoint Bravo and the checkpoint at Friedrichstrasse got the name Charlie. The main function of the checkpoint was to register and inform members of the Western Military Forces before entering East Berlin.
            Today it’s crowded with tourists – bus loads pulling up every few minutes. The story of Berlin’s division is commemorated with powerful black and white posters around the walls, and a series of stalls sell the usual tat. While we’re there a kilted man plays ‘Amazing Grace’ on his bagpipes; giggling girls, wearing the soldiers’ caps, are being photographed with the ‘military’. ‘Not one of those served in the American army,’ sniffs Gabriella.
            After the War East Berliners were paid one voucher for each three hours they put into clearing the rubble of bombed out buildings; 100 vouchers entitled them to be entered into a draw for ownership of an apartment.
Tiergarten: At 1 sq mile it’s the largest park in Berlin; home of Berlin Zoo from 1844; decimated during WW2 when Berliners cut down trees for firewood and grew potatoes and tobacco.

We’re on an Opera Break with The Travel Department, staying in the Ramada Hotel in Prager Platz, 10779. Good facilities, spacious bedrooms with great featherweight duvets and pillows and complimentary water and two small packets of peanuts. How nice, we think. Wrong about the peanuts! At checkout we’re asked to either return or pay. We return them, only – surprise, surprise to find them included in our luggage on reaching home!

Our rep Daniella has 24 years experience as a guide and is a mine of information on history of Berlin, and generous with sharing it. She was brought up in West Berlin and, despite the general consensus, says it never felt like a prison. On our 2-hour buss tour throughout the site she shoots facts, statistics, memories at us until we have a feeling for the place we’re spending a weekend.

The Bartered Bride is playing on one of Berlin’s three opera houses, although the general consensus with Berliners is that city can’t afford three opera houses – no more than they could three airports – one has already closed, leaving two and by 2012, there will only be one airport which can be best described as basically functional with nary a marble floor in sight! Back to the opera, taking place in Komische Oper which specialises in putting on comic operas and operettas. The outside of the building has been restored in hideous modern but inside has kept its ambience, although as with so much else of Berlin, it’s just too big – the stairs, the bar area and even its corridors defy cultural intimacy. It’s an economical production which doesn’t translate into modern, but Smetana’s music is glorious

Wonderful fruits, pastries, particularly the apple-based ones, breads, coffee, wines and beers, as well as apple juices and perch-pike fish simply grilled is a dish to die for. Lots of veal and beef which I found too smothered in darkly glutinous sauces and, but that’s personal. First night we step a round the corner from hotel to San Marino Italian restaurant; good fare – bruschetta and pasta costing about a third less than in Ireland; breakfasts in hotel: huge selection of fresh seasonal fruit; local breads; yogurts; scrambled eggs; bacon; sausages; cheeses; pancakes – great exactly what you want to set you up for a day’s sightseeing.
            Most memorable coffee experience is Sets Café on Schluterstrasse for coffee on Sunday morning, haunt of the young and beautiful. As well as great coffee and charming staff, it’s the place to sit and watch and see post-War Berlin at its best. The girls are long, lithe and gorgeously dressed in designer casuals – camels, tans, navys, greys and blacks – boots, suedes, furs – there’s hardly a ‘pop of colour’ as fashionistas refer to it. They favour tight pony-tails, red nails and discreet make-up. Their men are equally well turned out – Armani and well behaved dogs on splendidly coloured and jewelled leads being stock favourites.

The KaDeWe on Wittenberg Platz is the big and most talked about store in the city - in size its 8 floors are the equivalent size of 9 football pitches. It stocks everything you could think of, and things that are unimaginable – such as fried ants in chocolate! Visit its ground floor Luxury Boulevard for designer clothes; as well as which there are high street clothes, models of exclusive cars, toys, stationery, and has a great food hall, though not comparable to London’s Fortum and Mason – you name it, I reckon it has it.
            The really exclusive shopping area – Chanel, Louis Vitton, Bogetta, Saint Laurent are along Kurfurstendamm’s wide tree-lined street, with small glass outside cages displaying some of their more tempting goods. Here, mostly, casual in neutral colours is king. As expected prices are astronomical: trousers in the region of €1000; bulky sweaters and huge totes – gorgeous leather and suede -  around the same price.

Taxis are relatively inexpensive, about half the price of Dublin’s charges. We set out on Saturday evening for 6.30 mass in St Ludovic’s church, about a 15 minute balmy walk from the hotel. The ceremony goes on for well over an hour and when we come out, it’s not only pouring rain but we’ve exited from a different door and are totally disorientated. ‘A taxi’, we say, and duly hail one only to discover that we don’t have the hotel address and there are several Ramada hotels in Berlin. The woman driver uses SatNav and only navigates by street name and building number. She turns off the meter while we cogitate, eventually husband gets a map from a nearby hotel and shows her area of our hotel, which she duly finds. Motto: Do not leave hotel in a strange city without full address!!

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