Ah, holidays. A good holiday ought to be the highlight of the year; time devoted to relaxation and a chance to let the stresses of everyday life dissolve in a sea of cocktails and meals out. However, holidays and city breaks needn’t be focused on just the obvious appeal of a destination when so many cities in Europe offer exciting attractions just a little off the beaten track. Starting with Berlin, we’ll look at the how you can dig a bit under the surface of the city for some truly exceptional outings. You may rightly argue that Germany isn’t off the beaten track, but it only pulls in 1.9 million visits from British tourists per year. Compare this to over 19 million to France, 12 million to Spain and the statistics speak for themselves, despite Germany being a country of great beauty and contrast.
For a unique history trip to a city divided for over 40 years by one of the most oppressive regimes in history. At the height of its power, the Stasi – the Ministry for State Security in East Germany – had one secret policeman for every 66 people. East and West Berlin became two sectors of the same city that could be worlds apart, and it is East Berlin that arguably offers the most interesting sites for the intrepid tourist interested in the history, culture and architecture of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) era. As the German authorities pump money into the former East, calculated so far at €1 trillion and partially paid for through a ‘solidarity tax’ which is added to income tax, much of the history of the area is being changed, but there is still much to see.
The Socialist dream turned nightmare.
From Stande Null (zero hour) after World War II until 1989, when the Wall fell, Berlin went through an incredible shift. At the end of WWII, up to one third of the city was destroyed and the birth of the GDR saw the beginning of a new, austere form of architecture and way of life. Berlin is a city that offers visitors a fascinating insight into history, where you really can feel the divisions all these years later.
To deepen your understanding of the Ossies and the Wessies, there are a few stand-out GDR-era sites. The Stasi museum is an absolute must-see; the headquarters of the Stasi, where until 1990, eight thousand people worked. You can still see marks from the seals the last officers put on doors in early 1990, hoping to stop the people getting in as the regime crumbled. This was in vain: 15 January 1990 saw the people enter the building that had determined their lives for 40 years and now it serves as a reminder of what happened. The exhibition includes Erich Mielke’s offices, examples of surveillance equipment, and explanations of the events leading to the end of the Stasi. At five Euros for entry, it’s a real bargain and a museum that genuinely educates visitors.
Not far from the Stasi Museum is Karl-Marx Allee, a grand boulevard of Socialist architecture. It is a powerful reminder of how Communist states used architecture to stamp their presence on the cityscape; Karl Marx Allee is at once beautiful and oppressive – standing eight storeys high and nearly two kilometres long it offers a wonderful opportunity to experience Socialist architecture. For a taste of the Sixties interiors, check out Café Moskau – which used to host the landmark ’GMF’ LGBT night until a few years ago – as you head towards Alexander Platz. Alexander Platz itself was designed to be the centre point of East Berlin, punctuated by the Fernsehturm TV Tower and a number of showcase Socialist buildings, but it is now a building site in the middle of reconstructuon. However, you can still catch glimpses of the past in the World Clock and the Teacher’s Building, which features an enormous mural depicting life in the GDR.
To get an exhilarating 360-degree view of Berlin, visit the Fernsehturm, a feat of Socialist engineering that was completed in 1969. It was built to show the world the might of the GDR, and is a beautiful reflection of the spirit of the Sixties, echoing the ambition of the space race and showing to the world what Communism could do.
As a counterpoint to all things Socialist but still in old East Berlin territory, head to Unter Den Linden, which is another boulevard dating from the 17th century. It is a perfect walk for a time-pressed tourist, with Tiergarten at one end, alongside Berliner Dom (the Cathedral) and the Brandenburg Gate. Other fascinating sites that may come under the radar include the Bauhaus Museum, which celebrates the German architecture movement that only lasted between 1919 and 1933 but made an indelible mark on architecture. From the Bauhaus manifesto comes this ambitious aim:
Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together.
Berlin is packed full of exciting bars and nightlife, but Tacheles Art Centre is perhaps the most exciting of them all; there are constant rumours of its demise but it still seems to be there today. It is a war-damaged building (one of the basements is still flooded from World War II) occupied by sculptors, artists and musicians that perfectly fits Berlin’s personality. If you’re an honest sort, try the Weinerei where you purchase a wine glass for two Euros and help yourself to wine all night, before deciding what to pay at the end. To the British this may seem odd, but the Berlin U-Bahn doesn’t even have barriers; trust is clearly something the Germans embrace and it’s wonderfully liberating to be trusted. In terms of food, currywurst is absolutely worth trying; a sausage covered in tomato sauce and given a powdery coating of mild curry. Eight hundred million currywursts are consumed annually in Germany, and a trip to Berlin with no currywurst is no trip at all.
Ultimately, Berlin offers everything you could ever possibly want from a city break; from the glorious dome of the Reichstag – designed by Norman Foster – to the Holocaust Memorial site near the Brandenburg Gate. Berlin is a destination that throws up surprises all the time and can be a fascinating destination just through walking alone; however, some advance planning on what side of Berlin you want to see can bring you even great riches.
This article originally stated that Cafe Moskau hosted an LGBT night. This has