Speeding into town
from the airport was a blur of grey buildings against the grey sky, the tail
lights and headlights of traffic the only punctuations of brightness. Then, out
of the darkness, I saw the Grosser Stern rising, taller than I had ever thought
it would be, with its brilliant golden statue of the Goddess of Victory looking
out over the city. We turned towards the Brandenburg gate, grandly Prussian and
strangely out of place in this city of post-war reconstruction.
We arrived shortly at the Hotel de Rome, Sir Rocco’s Berlin property and decorated as usual by his prolific and talented sister Olga Polizzi. The hotel was formerly a bank built in the 1930’s and its implacable and serious façade spoke of money, money, money. Our suite was enormous and so masculine that it was almost intimidating – pin striped fabrics, dark carpet and red leather chairs. I’m not sure that it was entirely to my taste although it was certainly luxurious in an understated way. The hotel is extremely well located, midway between Museum Island and Gendarmenmarkt and within walking distance of everything in Mitte, but enough out of the action to be quiet and discreet. Staff were fabulous and friendly, and couldn’t do enough to make our stay pleasant, from organizing dinner at the hard-to-get-into Borchardt (for wafer thin schnitzel and excellent people watching) to helping with our excess luggage requirements for an onward flight. Other guests at the hotel were extremely well dressed, in a Chanel and Brioni way, and took afternoon tea in the lounge with their immaculate and well behaved Euro-offspring to our great jealousy and wonder. We were later to visit the Soho Hotel, which would have been our other choice in Berlin, and it was immediately apparent that the Soho was where the hip stayed, and the De Rome was where the money stayed.
I woke early to explore the city. Although Mitte has a reputation for being so-cool-it’s-below-freezing, as I pottered about, I realised that it was actually immensely liveable. Locals in architecturally confusing glasses shopped at little organic markets with their dogs and children, wastefully handsome boys sat in indefinably hip bars and cafes holding hands with other wastefully handsome boys, and vintage and modern sit side by side in pretty much every shop in the city. Although I’ve long passed over that invisible line separating those who go out clubbing from those who don’t (although I haven’t yet progressed to watching The Bill of a Saturday night), I’m given to understand that Berlin’s midnight til dawn scene has every niche pleasure one could desire.
I also noticed that just as Italy has more useless sock shops per capita than anywhere else, so Berlin has more avant garde hairdressers than anywhere else.
The shopping in Berlin is interesting - I actually didn’t come here to shop (no, really, I mean it!!) but loved the tiny independent boutiques and eateries around Mitte, particularly in Mulackstrasse. I ended up with a large parcel from Lala, who designs lovely cashmere knits. I have a theory that cashmere is good for the soul. No matter how terrible you feel, when you wear it you immediately feel better. Also, it doesn’t show off as no-one else knows you’re wearing it (although because it feels so nice I do tend to pat myself in way which is probably alarming to the casual bystander).
Then the Christmas markets - they are more about food than gifts, I discovered, but what’s not to like?? I had a wurst, of course, followed by a kind of sourdough flatbread hot out of the oven and topped with cream cheese, bacon and spring onions. It was delicious. Then sugared almonds, a toffee apple and Bauernkuche.
This last was really interesting - what looked like a huge pancake was rolled up on a spit in a rotisserie and every time it got brown and crispy, a man would ladle more batter over it to cook, until it ended up like a 5 foot long vanilla sponge roll. They would take it off the spit, cover it in a thin layer of chocolate, chop it into warm bite size pieces and serve a paper cone full of them to greedy people like me. I couldn’t pass up a mug of hot Gluhwein redolent with orange peel and spices. It was so delicious, and it made all the Christmas lights quite fuzzy.
There are excellent galleries everywhere, both private and public. From the Guggenheim’s Berlin outpost and the Boros Bunker to the crumbling artists’ ateliers of Prenzlauer Berg (in the endless cycle they are now shifting out due to rising rents). Museum Island has plenty to interest everyone, including the incredible Ishtar Gates pilfered by the Germans during the war and rebuilt in all its Babylonian glory in full at the Pergamon.
One of the highlights of our visit was to the Reichstag Dome, which you must prebook online at least a week before you plan to be there. Such imposed organisation always suggests disappointment will follow, but in this case, it was well worth the extra effort. The dome was designed by Norman Foster and despite rigorous security checks (understandable), once we reached the Dome, we could see all of Berlin in 360 degree glory, with an informative commentary which gave us a potted history of its landmarks as we rose higher into the sky.
Sunday morning we visited the Holocaust Memorial, a vast maze of oddly sized and slightly imperfectly aligned polished concrete blocks set on undulating terrain. It was drizzling lightly and there was one lone jogger in a bright red tracksuit, who appeared at odd intervals as a flash of colour moving between the blocks like a mirage. It is a beautiful and thought provoking monument.
Despite its somber raison d’etre, my son loved it, playing peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek with much giggling. I couldn’t help but join in, despite misgivings about the impropriety of it. Then I rationalised it as a metaphor for life and love, which could apply to the city as a whole. Out of its dark history of pride, fear, loathing and destruction has risen a city of vibrancy, rawness and energy.