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October - November 2007



by Aline Dobbie

I have just returned from a most exhilarating trip to Berlin. In 1959 as a child at boarding school in England whilst my parents lived and worked in India I was invited to stay in Cologne during a spring holiday. That first travel to a foreign land completely on my own made a deep impression. In the post war years of the 1950s Germany had many scars on its landscape, as indeed did the UK. I was deeply aware of the conflict that had taken place, in which my own father had fought and I was a student of history. Now on a return trip to a reunified confident Germany powering ahead in the 21st century it was a total delight to see Berlin in all its renewed and new found glory.

There are of course many airlines that will take you there, but from the UK certainly the most economic and indeed efficient way is by using EasyJet to Schonefeld Airport. One exits the airport and walks to the rail and S-Bahn station immediately adjacent to the airport through a walk-way and half an hour later arrives in the centre of this amazinag city on an express train. Public transport is both easy and efficient and cheap! We had chosen an apartment hotel called Citadines which has a very good reputation throughout Europe. It is situated just off the world famous Kurfurstendamm, which in the days of partition was the centre for West Berlin. It still retains its elegant ambience and all the famous designer shops and attractive restaurants ensure that it remains a buzzy and lively area and full of people. We loved the whole atmosphere and walked almost the whole length that brought us to the icon of the Cold War years in West Berlin – the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtnis-Kirche or in English the Emperor Wilhelm Memorial Church. The ruined remains of this once great church are deeply moving. The ruined church and the new buildings built on either side are a microcosm for the new Germany. In reconciliation this building and its congregation has been closely coupled with Coventry Cathedral in England. The latter donated a cross of nails twenty years ago to the Memorial Hall. The nails originate from that cathedral’s roof beams which were consumed by fire when Coventry was reduced to dust and ashes by a German bombing attack in November 1940. From the nails collected from the ashes the congregation formed the cross of nails and gave it as a token gift which has today become a symbol of worldwide efforts at reconciliation. To quote just a few of the words of the Coventry Cathedral prayer…’Father Forgive the hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class….the covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own….the greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth….our envy of the welfare and happiness of others….our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee….’.

In the evening sunshine looking around at people from all faiths and none one could despair – or, live in hope that one day we will all agree with those sentiments.

Berlin is a big city and well spread out with whole neighbourhoods under reconstruction. The total population is about 3 million and therefore currently there is not the pressure of population density on any of the new infrastructure. We took a city bus tour from which one could get off and on. It is really the only way to begin to understand what has been accomplished in the last decade. Those of us who are old enough to recall vividly the building of the Berlin Wall from 13th August 1961 and rejoiced in its demolition are naturally intrigued about this sad ugly scar on the city. Checkpoint Charlie and the area surrounding has pathos amongst the bustle of people streaming up and down – a reminder of a harsh and bitter time

Mrs Meera Shankar, India’s ambassador to Germany with the author

The Jewish Museum since opening its doors in 2001 has joined the ranks of Europe’s leading museums. It is an architectural masterpiece; Daniel Libeskind’s spectacular structure has firmly established itself as one of Berlin’s most recognizable landmarks. The zinc-panelled building is truly innovative in the connection it creates between the museum’s themes and its architecture. Rich in symbolism, the museum’s architecture makes German-Jewish history palpable, raises numerous questions and provokes reflection. It is the most visited museum of all in Berlin and my goodness this city has truly an amazing array of wonderful exhibitions to suit all tastes. I was profoundly moved by what I saw and heard and experienced and recommend it as essential to any visitor. When standing in the Holocaust tower one felt exactly what Libeskind intended – dread, isolation, disorientation and suffocation.

Let me not fill you with depression however; there is much about which to rejoice and reflect happily in Berlin. The people are so friendly and truly helpful. We were slightly disoriented when we arrived on the Kurfurstendamm out of the metro station and so we asked an elderly lady the way to Olivier Platz – our hotel destination; she obviously did not know and suggested tentatively one way, on which we started, but I heard a strange noise and looked back and there she was, having ascertained it was the wrong way from a bus schedule, and was trying to catch us up to tell us. It was a most kind gesture. Waiters, shop assistants, attendants, were all so happy to help and pass the time of day and of course it is now a very multi-cultural city which adds to the pleasure. It is also a relatively cheap city and the fruit shops and flower shops invite one to buy – we managed to have fresh papaya daily with a twist of lime and sugar! Germans have a true penchant for good chocolate and Berlin has some of the greatest chocolate shops that fill one with wonder! Multi-cultural population leads to multi-cultural cuisine which is delightful and because everything is reasonably priced one does not have to think twice about choosing a cheerful welcoming café or bistro for both lunch and dinner.

We visited the Reichstag at night. I particularly wanted to photograph the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag floodlit and one is able to access the glass dome of the Reichstag till 22.00 hours. We chose our second night and had a most wonderful time with a drink up in the elegant restaurant, sadly it stopped serving food at 21.00 hours and we were ten minutes late. Looking down from the glorious glass and mirrors dome over all Berlin is wonderful and I felt proud that Sir Norman Foster had achieved something so unique – a British architect. The next morning we took the metro to Unter den Linden the famous avenue that stretches from the Brandenburg Gate and Pariser Platz right down to Museum Island and enjoyed the ‘Gate’ again in sunshine and then visited the Jewish Holocaust Memorial which is very close by. I also took photos of the British Embassy and others; the Nordic Embassies are all in one spectacular building that looks like a green glass wave, but they are situated in Tiergarten, where the Indian Embassy is also resplendent in red sandstone from Rajasthan. Walking down Unter den Linden was lovely with the four rows of Lime trees in the middle of the two avenues and great buildings that have been carefully renovated. We stopped off for a hot chocolate at the famous Café Dressler which was a delight. It is quite normal to see elegant city folk having breakfast till quite late in the various restaurants. This seems to be a characteristic of Berlin because they pride themselves on an assortment of breakfasts in the most elegant to the most humble cafes.

I would also recommend a river tour because one automatically receives a different perspective of the city, this ticket can be bought in conjunction with the bus tour and all achieved on the same day. The Museum Island is stunning, and now that the various grand buildings are being renovated I think Berlin will surpass all other capitals for her museums. Moreover they are situated close to the Berliner Dom which in itself is a beautiful building still undergoing renovation. The Berliner Dom is the Protestant church/cathedral of what was Imperial Berlin and in the crypt is the Hohenzollern mausoleum. It is a very beautiful ornate baroque building and we arrived by chance in time for part of a mid-day service. The mausoleum is intriguing and leaves one reflecting that an age of imperialism and monarchy has passed in Germany, but one should be thankful for what had gone before and the legacy of all those rulers who left a heritage of beautiful buildings and monuments which give us great pleasure today.

Of all the museums on Museum Island the Pergamon Museum is an absolute must to see the treasures such as the reconstructed Pergamon Altar from the acropolis of Pergamon in Asia Minor (now Bergama, Turkey). This is dated 170 BC and this artistic masterpiece was discovered by German archaeologist Carl Humann, who was allowed to transport the pieces to Berlin. Another striking exhibit is the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way which was built by Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC) in the ancient city of Babylon. The collection also includes pieces from Syria, Persia and Palestine. The Museum of Islamic Art is equally full of beautiful artefacts. There is also some lovely Indian art in the Museum in Dahlem a leafy suburb of Berlin.

We also managed to visit Potsdam for a day; I would however recommend that when planning a trip try and keep two days for Potsdam and preferably change your accommodation to a hotel in Potsdam for one or two nights; this lovely little city is also full of treasures like the wonderful palace and park of Sans Souci. Frederick the Great was the mastermind of most of what was built in Potsdam and his legacy is wonderful. There is an efficient train service from Potsdam to Schonefeld Airport.

Finally we had the great pleasure of being guests of HE The Indian Ambassador to Germany for luncheon at her Residence in Berlin. Mrs Meera Shankar is a charming knowledgeable woman who is doing a wonderful job representing India at just the right time when Germany is powering ahead and urgently seeking ways in which to do business with India. For me especially it was an apt end to a wonderful visit. To be hosted by an elegant Indian representing her great country in another great European country and talking of things past and the future to the evocative strains of Indian music seemed unique and special.

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