A New Year visit to Berlin

Walking through the Holocaust Memorial Child inside the Holocaust Memorial A remaining fragment of the wall Approach to the Olympic Stadium Walkway around the Olympic Stadium Internal view of the Olympic Stadium Olympic Stadium roof - another angle Olympic Stadium parade ground Detail of Sanssouci Palace at Potsdam
Crack in The Wall The Wall Memorial Preserved WWII ruins The Soviet War Memorial Another view of the Soviet War Memorial A detail from the Soviet War Memorial Tempelhof toilet sign Tempelhof restaurant sign Traffic light and currywurst

I visited Berlin for the first time at the start of 2006. My sister, Mary Ann, and her boyfriend, John, had just bought an apartment there and invited me over for New Year's Eve and a few days sightseeing.

I wasn't at all sure what to expect. I had never been to any part of Germany but had acquired quite a few stereotypical views of the place over the years. Without really thinking about it much I expected a very clean, modern and somewhat antiseptic city. At the same time there were various images in my mind of the derelict spaces around the wall, of watch towers and of the 1970s and 80s druggy and alternative youth culture.

I suppose it almost goes without saying that I was wrong about everything. The city was anything but antiseptic - people even smoked in restaurants and not just in designated smoking areas! Very laid-back, relaxed and friendly with cool and comfortable bars and cafes everywhere. Memorable café breakfasts and even more memorable cakes.

I never got a handle on the geography of the city while I was there but was aware of an awful lot of open space even in the centre. The distinction between the East and West is fading fast though there is still quite a lot of outstandingly bad and insensitive architecture to be seen in the old East. So sometimes the buildings around you let you know where you are. Another clue is tram lines - these were only retained in the East. And then there are the traffic lights - different in the East with altogether charming little red and green men. So charming, in fact, that they have now been adopted, alongside the bear, as symbols or mascots of the whole city. And the Eastern red and green men have begun to appear on traffic lights in the Western part of the city. So, they don't work as a guide anymore.

But most striking of all is the number of reminders of and memorials to the past. With excellent guides like Mary Ann and John almost every street and building had something to say of Berlin's past as a place around which so much of 20th century history pivoted. For me the two most powerful memorials are those to The Holocaust and The Wall - both because of what they commemorate and the understated brilliance with which the commemoration has been achieved. The bombastic Soviet War Memorial is less visited but well worth seeing. It was the first time I had seen a Soviet monument and it certainly lived up to expectations.

My few days in Berlin whetted my appetite and utterly dispelled many stereotypes. I'm very eager to get back there and see some more. I'm also very grateful to Mary Ann and John for the time and effort they put in to showing me the place. Guided by them I came away with a reading and viewing list to prepare me for my next visit.

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