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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
            Back to Open Skies

Back to Berlin

1 November 2014

Veteran traveller Adrian Mourby takes a walk down memory lane, through the city he first discovered in 1989, just after the Wall came down and Berlin changed forever

Twenty-five years ago I came to Berlin for the first time. Earlier that month the infamous Wall had been breached. In 1989 Europe’s cruelly divided city was on the brink of transformation. I remember walking alongside the hideously naff Palace Of The People and up Unter den Linden. I passed the headquarters of the DDR Bank (already on its last legs) on Bebelplatz and crossed Friedrichstrasse, where the Stasi regularly bugged the tables at an old restaurant called Ganymed. 

I remember walking up to the dead ground that had once been Pariser Platz. Up ahead was the Brandenburg Gate, blackened by time and war. This empty space, cleared of rubble and affording no cover for anyone making a bid to cross the Wall, had once been home to the best embassies in Berlin: the British, French and American. It had also been the location of the city’s finest hotel, The Adlon, but all of that had gone. It wasn’t even rubble. What I walked through was a wasteland, known until only recently as the “death strip”. On I walked to the Brandenburg Gate and under it as far as that big swollen arc that the Wall made as it bulged into West German territory. 

And there ahead of me was the Wall itself, with gaps already broken through its concrete and its coving knocked off in places. And I remember more strongly than anything joining a queue of laughing ostberliners, and then squeezing through one of those gaps and thinking that not since 1961 had a civilian been able to walk here without being shot. 

I picked up some fragments of the Wall – which I still have – to keep as a souvenir, something to remind me that I was lucky to have been born on the other side of that awful Iron Curtain. Fast forward to today and the moribund Berlin of president Erich Honecker is unrecognisable. And yet, ironically, much of it might be recognisable to the German kings for whom this city was originally built. As I stand now on the bridge that crosses the River Spree, Honecker’s woeful Palace Of The Republic is gone. 

This 1970s tribute to bad taste with its bronze windows, asbestos lining and giant chandeliers had been built over the City Palace of the Kaisers, which the president had insisted on demolishing. The Hohenzollern’s elegant 15th century structure had in fact survived the Second World War only to be demolished on ideological grounds and replaced with “Erich’s Light Shop” as East Germans called his People’s Palace. 

It was an eyesore as well as a health hazard back in 1989, and for me it’s very satisfying to see that the City Palace is being rebuilt to look exactly as it did when Queen Victoria’s daughter arrived here in 1858 to become Crown Princess of Prussia. On the inside there will be a modern art gallery and university conference centre.

Immediately opposite stands Museum Island, an actual island in the river Spree that contains the greatest concentration of art galleries and museums in Northern Europe. It looked in sore need of repair in 1989 and is now looking more its former self, but a sign says it won’t be finished until 2025. So now I’m at the east end of Unter den Linden and, when I look across to the old DDR Bank headquarters, I see it’s now a Rocco Forte hotel, taking its name, the Hotel de Rome (hotelderome.de), from an old hotel that stood at this end of Under den Linden until 1910. 

The DDR Bank did not survive long after the Wall was breached. Today you wouldn’t recognise the interior with all the extravagant furniture designer Olga Polizzi brings to all her brother’s hotels, but down by the basement swimming pool one of the strong-room doors remains locked, a massive piece of impenetrable metal, a reminder that this was where Ostmarks were stored during the time of the DDR. 

At the junction at Friedrichstrasse I go in search of Ganymed. It is still there on the banks of the Spree, although now there’s a splendid mosaic of the goddess Thalia over the front door. These days the restaurant where the Stasi eavesdropped is a French brasserie (ganymed-brasserie.de). Its director, Patrick Willems, is able to tell me great stories of Bertolt Brecht eating here in the days of the old DDR and of an American general treated to an excellent dinner at Ganymed, who leaned forward at the end of the evening and thanked the Stasi’s microphone (hidden in the flowers) for a most enjoyable meal. 

Patrick also tells me that the mosaic of Thalia over the door had always been there, but in the Communist era it had been concreted over because everyone had been told to suppress signs of affluence. Returning to Unter den Linden I head towards Brandenburg Gate and Pariser Platz, negotiating my way past bright blue pipes that are redirecting the city’s water supply while underneath this gracious boulevard a new U-bahn line is being built. 

U-bahn 5 will reunite Alexanderplatz, the old focal point of East Berlin, with the Brandenburg Gate and travel on into the former West Berlin. This line is another big project for a city, once cut in two and still joining up the pieces. U-Bahn 5 will not open until 2019.

As I approach Pariser Platz the Brandenburg Gate is instantly recognisable, but where an East German checkpoint once stood facing empty ground, Hotel Adlon has been rebuilt. Back in 1989 this whole area was levelled like a bombsite, but from 1907 until 1945 the Adlon had stood here as the best and most modern hotel in Berlin. 

In the last days of the Second World War it was accidentally burned down by Red Army soldiers who had broken into its cellars. Then in 1984 the ruins were demolished, leaving the landscape even more desolate. The British, French and American embassies that used to stand here before the world had already gone, blown up during air-raids on Germany. So nothing stood here 25 years ago, just that blackened gate and the Wall beyond. 

How much has changed! All three embassies are back, as is the Adlon (hotel-adlon.de), now Adlon Kempinski) and Pariser Platz has coffee shops and a festival atmosphere as tourists pose for photos with locals dressed up as grim-faced East German soldiers and characters from Star Wars. 

Finally I walk though the Brandenburg Gate, which has been restored now to how it looked in 1814. Look closely and you can still make out where bullet holes have been repaired. The figure on top with the four horses is once again Victory. From 1791 until 1814 a goddess of peace had stood on this gate but after the defeat of Napoleon, Berlin added an iron cross and Prussian eagle to her laurel wreath and renamed her Victory. 

Back in 1989 she was in pretty poor condition but in the 1990s the whole gate was restored at a cost of €6million. Twenty-five years on you might say she represents the victory of peace in Europe. As to the Wall, nothing remains of it here but a simple double line of bricks set into ground as traffic rushes past north and south. East and west. 

The nightmare of those terrible years when a regime kept its people prisoner is not forgotten but it’s fading. When I picked up my bits of the Wall 25 years ago I had no idea that a tourist industry was beginning, but that is what Berlin’s past is becoming. But better part of the tourist industry than ever repeated.



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