We found ourselves with a couple of days to spare and undecided where to spend it. Berlin, we thought. I’ve been there many times for work both before and since 1989, but never for fun, so it seemed like a good idea to in take a couple of days just wandering around. When you travel for work you often just taxi-in from the airport to hotel and back again. But some years ago during the early part of the 1990s while working in western Poland we based ourselves at the Intercon by the zoo and would drive across the old Russian sector and what was East Germany to the Polish border. The wall had been down for a couple of years and the transition from West to East was still as marked it had been in the old pre-unification days of Checkpoint Charlie and all that.
Getting to the border then was something else. There is one massive road that crosses Europe, starting in Moscow it trails westwards to Minsk then Warsaw, Posnan and on to Berlin and beyond. This is it, picking up various European ‘E’ road designations and local variants along the way. Heavy lorries taking goods between east and west, interspersed with Ladas, Trabants and Wartburgs with roof racks piled high with personal belongings and garden produce for sale. Water melons, tomatoes and pumpkins, sometimes loaded to twice the height of the car itself and in danger of toppling the whole lot over over. Military trucks in convoy with their canopies lashed tightly closed. And in the more dangerous two lane sections there would be the inevitable horse and cart moving between village and farm, slowing the traffic to a trotting speed and acting as a reminder of just how far the economic gulf was between the agricultural villages and the cities. Between all this the flash new Fords and Audis would be weaving in and out driven by ‘business men’ at breakneck speeds and bursts of engine-wrenching acceleration and sudden forced deceleration. Polish roads were particularly dangerous and we worked out that a slightly longer, but safer, drive from Berlin to Zielona Gora was better for our life expectancy than playing chicken with the lunatics who drove west out of Warsaw.
The East German autobahn was mostly two lanes in each direction, but you had to travel in the fast lane because the tracks made by the heavy lorries in the slow lane were in some place inches deep and just plain dangerous to try and drive on. The fast lane was like a badly maintained road back home, but at least it wouldn’t send you off the road towards the verge or the other lane every few yards. The border crossing was at a place named Frankfurt, of the ‘an der Oder’ variety, not ‘am Main’. For several kilometers each side of the actual crossing the road would be choked by heavy lorries waiting to pass through customs. This could take up to seven days and clearly was not a delay that a busy consultant on a mission could tolerate. The trick was to find a gap in the central reservation and to cross to the fast lane of the opposite carriageway with headlights and indicators going until the actual border crossing was reached and it was possible to switch back to the empty road approaching the border guards and their seemingly casual but in fact intense scrutiny of passport and car boot. I was first shown this trick by a Dutchman in a big old Mercedes who stopped behind me at the end of a line of trucks several kilometres long blocking the road. He ushered me through the gap ahead of him shouting as he ran back to his car “remember … the flashers … you must put them ALL on!”.
A colleague got it badly wrong one day trailing in the car behind me. We were in a rush to get to Tegel and he inadvertently called the Polish border guard a donkey. There must be something international about this word as it took him two hours to catch up with us having had his car literally taken apart. In fact we never made the flight that night because the colleague I was traveling with, an Irishman from Limerick, was doing the navigating. I knew something was badly wrong when we were less than 50 kilometres from Leipzig. “You’re not a navigator, are you?” I commented as I caught him using the map like a steering wheel beside me in the passenger seat. ‘No” he admitted “I was a rally driver”. I later found out that the reason he stopped drinking was he once killed a cow after leaving a pub in County Limerick one night following a session on the Guinness.
The transformation twenty years on is complete. Although you can see examples of old Eastern Bloc architecture around the place, Berlin is now just another busy city in central Europe but with a lot of special atmosphere. We based ourselves in the previous Russian sector slightly to the north east of the centre (or ‘mitte’ as they call it) in a quiet residential area packed with cafes and small family restaurants. The hotel was part of a run of three or four buildings in a terrace owned by the same person. Stylishly designed rooms with plenty of living space and a decent sized bathroom looking out onto a designer landscaped courtyard. In our case it was a water garden, a quiet sanctuary with a pleasant conservatory which felt like being in a well-tended greenhouse with haphazard potted plants and comfortable chairs to sit out in, complete with a self-service honesty bar. From here as a base you can easily explore the city with a reasonable walk to the centre. We spent most of our time shopping-wise wandering around Hackische Hoefe, a network of courtyards with an assortment of unusual shops. Nearby we found a fabulous place specialising in all those delightful wooden toys that only the Germans can do. Just the place you always wanted to find yourself in as a child.
For cultural input we decided not to spend time at the many galleries they have in Berlin, but instead spent several hours wandering through the Berliner Dom cathedral. This place has to be seen to appreciate the sheer size and magnificence of the interior. Taking a direct hit through the dome in the Second World War, decades of restoration have transformed it to its former glory and it has everything from the majesty of the main cathedral itself to a sole-of-the-foot tingling climb outside the dome and a spine-tingling visit to the crypt where four hundred years of the Hohenzollern ruling house are lying in their tombs. If it wasn’t for the crowds it would be the stuff of Gothic horror movies.
A casual stroll down Unter den Linden, which I am sure has lost much of its original grandeur along with the rebuilding of this part of the city, takes you to the Brandenburg Gate. This used to mark the border between West Berlin and East Berlin, but now the whole area plays host to modern embassies, the French, British and Americans, built over what used to be the no-man’s land between east and west. On through the gates, the last of the former city gates, leads to the wooded splendor of the Tiergarten where you can take a wonderfully pleasant and cool walk through an extensive inner city woodland where paths wind around monuments and ornamental lakes and you get the chance to see the iconic Berlin Victory Column up close.
We found an excellent small restaurant close to the hotel, called Pasternak, specializing in central European Jewish cuisine set in an intimate 19th century atmosphere of starched tablecloths and white-aproned waiters. Kreplach and strogonov with latke, salmon and shashlik karsky (aka rack of lamb) washed down with Proseco and something very good from the Languedoc, cleverly recommended by the waiter when we couldn’t find a Mosel on the list. Great comfort food and just what was needed after a day of hard walking around town. A really enjoyable end to the day, once again within staggering distance from the hotel. Can’t recall much of the rest of the evening so it must have been worth the visit.
Hotel Ackselhaus, Belforter Strasse 21, we thought was reasonably priced at €160 for a double. It’s just 20-30 minutes by taxi from Tegel or by the U-Bahn station nearby at Senefelder-platz.