Jon Griffin visits Germany's cosmopolitan and vibrant capital – a rival for London and Paris.
The great cities of the world are, by their distinctive nature, a pretty exclusive bunch. It’s an entirely subjective choice, of course, but certain names spring automatically to mind...
London, no question. Ditto New York and maybe Chicago... Paris and Rome undoubtedly... and to that rarefied list I would add Berlin.
The German capital may not boast Big Ben, the Champs Elysee, Times Square or the Colosseum, but its relatively recent history is perhaps as dramatic as any other location on the planet.
If you stroll around this city of 3.5 million people for an hour or so, you can’t fail to reflect on events that shaped the course of history in Europe just a few decades ago. Berlin boasts an aura quite unlike any other spot on earth – and is quite possibly the ultimate example of a city’s ability to reinvent itself after staring ruin and tragedy in the face.
It’s now more than 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany – and nearly 70 years since the Red Army’s march on Hitler’s nerve centre brought history’s bloodiest conflict, the Second World War, to an end after nearly six shattering years and tens of millions of deaths.
Notwithstanding the tragic backdrop, the Berlin of today is a young, dynamic and cosmopolitan city at the heart of Europe. It’s a thriving, multi-cultural centre, a city which dragged itself up from its knees to carve its own unique niche in the modern world.
‘Something for everyone’ may be a tired, overused cliche – but it’s as true of Berlin as of anywhere on earth, and probably explains why the city is now the third most popular destination in Europe after London and Paris.
A three-day tour provided a compelling insight into the varied delights of this extraordinary place, from the clean modernity of Potsdamer Platz in the city centre to the bohemian nightlife of the Kreuzberg district and the tranquil landscape of the Greater Wannsee Lake.
Potsdamer Platz bears impressive testament to Berlin’s capacity to move with the times into the 21st century, with its impressive array of modern architecture, glossy shopping malls, cinemas and bars.
But Berlin is a city of contrasts, and Kreuzberg is as contrasting as it gets. The area is a sort of New York Greenwich Village/Woodstock-style commune quarter transplanted into a ‘shabby chic’ European setting. The publicity blurb said: “From the bohemian trendy scene of Kreuzberg’s Media Spree to the Mitte District’s latest hotspots, you will witness the weird and wonderful, the glamorous and grotesque. It will bring you face to face with street art, funky local characters, the city’s newest scene and atmospheric locations way beyond the tourist trail.” Quite so.
A walking tour of Kreuzberg on a balmy summer’s Friday evening was a cross between a night at a 1960s hippie rock festival and a front-row seat at a travelling circus. Graffiti-strewn walls, bohemian-style bars with their own beachfronts, restaurants of varied culinary provenance... Kreuzberg is certainly different.
A further contrast was Wannsee, in the far south-west of the city, a beautiful waterside location surrounded by lakes and rivers. The River Havel flows around it to the north and west, and there are extensive parklands to soak up the rural splendour, while an alfresco lunch at the Loretta am Wannsee beer garden/restaurant provided an enjoyable bonus.
There are restaurants to cater for every taste in this most cosmopolitan of cities. A personal favourite was Chen Che, a Vietnamese diner in the city’s Rosenthaler Strasse, with seafood dishes to die for.First-class cuisine was also available at our hotel location for the duration of the three-day visit, the Maritim Hotel in Stauffenbergstrasse, a convenient stopping-off point for a stroll around the city centre or a visit to further-flung parts.