Berlin’s tactile history breaks down walls

Ahead of the 2009 athletics World Championships being staged in Berlin, BAWA member ANDY EDWARDS offers this personal guide to the city

Anyone who spends even a day in Berlin and fails to feel the weight of history probably needs their pulse testing.

I first went there in 1973 returning from a school trip to the Soviet Union, shortly before I studied German and French at university. For most of my life the literature, history and philosophy of the German-speaking world has been a strong interest. Since 1999 I’ve averaged two trips a year to the city, working for the organisers of the Berlin marathon.

Berlin history is tactile. Go to any of the historic buildings off the grand avenue of Unter den Linden and run your hands over the brick and stonework. The bullet holes date from what the Daily Telegraph’s former war correspondent Cornelius Ryan called The Last Battle.

It seems to have been a definite policy to repair the city to a certain extent but still leave reminders. Take a look at pictures of the Brandenburg Gate during the last days of World War Two and nearby buildings such as the Adlon Hotel.

The city is very walkable. The historic area close to Unter den Linden, described as the “Museuminsel”, literally Museum Island, offers the Guggenheim, the State Opera House, Humboldt University and the Berlin Dom, or cathedral. The area is also full of cafes which, at least before Sterling plunged against the Euro, offered good quality food at lower than London prices. The same applied to the more shopping-orientated avenue of the Kurfuerstendamm, or “Ku’damm”.

In general German food is intended for those engaged in strong, physical work. It may not be the haute cuisine of the French, but there is less snobbery about eating. It’s a question of getting stuck in to a good Jaegerschnitzel with perhaps a Weissbier or Dunkles as accompaniment. After all, you can eat all the pasta or Asian food you want anywhere.

The crowning glory for me is the bread. As a schoolboy, the German bread was a revelation. I came from a country where eating brown bread was only just losing its eccentric status and arrived in a land where bread not only tasted fantastic, but came in such variety it was like choosing from a wine list.

Berlin was, and is still very much, a student city – the sheer number of Berliners reflects the large student populations of the Freie and Technische Universitaet. Perhaps this is why Berliners have been more advanced in eco-friendliness (they are avid bike riders), and why Berlin has been a more affordable place to rent than major British cities. Renting is far more widespread than owning.

Adolf Hitler did not have a soft spot for Berliners. Although his architect Albert Speer created plans for a new “Germania” to crown the Third Reich’s victory, the inhabitants were considered far too uppity, or lippy, by the Nazi establishment. This was due to the famous Berliner “Schnauze” – literally, “having a mouth on you” – which flourishes to this day. If you speak German but haven’t been to Berlin before, beware, the accent is distinctive: “gut” (good) becomes “jut”, the hard “g” replaced by a “y” as in the English “yacht”.

As for getting around, the U-Bahn or metro is excellent, and taxis are plentiful, although the rate of exchange will make them expensive. The city has plenty of greenery and the Tiergarten and Grunewald are good places to run, though, in keeping with the rest of the city, they are pancake-flat.

Berlin also has plenty of water and bridges: the rivers Havel and Spree are part of its landscape, contributing to a feeling that you are never far away from a forest or lake. Forests, especially, are crucial to the German psyche. Just as we might speak of a cross-country run, Germans talk of doing a “Waldlauf” or “forest run”.

Hildegard Knef, actress, singer and writer, and one of the post-war stars of German showbusiness, recorded a song called “Ich hab’ immer einen Koffer in Berlin” (“I always have some luggage left in Berlin”) that summed up the hold the city has on those who return again and again. I count myself among them and hope you get to sample some of the historic city’s atmosphere this August.

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