I really regret I did not know Berlin before the Wall fell and I wasn’t there during the first years after reunification. When I came to Berlin for the first time seven years ago it was around this time of the year, in the beginning of December, obviously not the best time for sightseeing, and I came here to do research in the Federal Archives, on the early history of the motorways in Austria during Nazi rule.
Having arrived on the night train, I remember I made a short visit to Friedrichstraße and Unter den Linden just to get a first impression of the city before taking the underground and the bus to the hotel which was in the vicinity of the Archives and therefore far from the centre.
I was soon aware what it meant to be in a city with two centres: the old, historic one, of which there is not very much left, and the “new west” around Kurfürstendamm. Berlin for me is a city of large distances even within the central areas, but of course also between them. Public transport works well, there are several underground lines, above all in former West Berlin and there is also a dense network of metropolitan railways which in my opinion is much more comfortable. And there are still some tramway lines in former East Berlin. Surprisingly, many stations of the underground and the metropolitan railway apparently were not destroyed during the war or were re-built following the original design; in any case they are worth a closer look, though, of course, they may not compete with the Moscow underground stations. But they are clean, safe and well lit, and in most of the stations you can buy some snacks or newspapers when waiting in front of the tracks even late in the evening.
But if there is no public transport nearby (and as a visitor I largely relied upon the underground and the metropolitan railway and only seldom used the bus), Berlin quickly turned into a rather unfriendly city. Streets are large and busy, distances are long, and even in the central areas I often felt a bit lost as a pedestrian. There aren’t small shops and cafés every few metres as in other big cities so you sometimes have the impression of strolling on the streets of a provincial town rather than being in one of Europe’s most dynamic cities. On my last stay during the T²M Conference I was surprised by the high numbers of cyclists on the streets, regardless to heavy traffic and only few of them wearing helmets. Maybe it was due to the fine weather in early October because before I had always been here in winter or spring.
For the last 140 years Berlin was always said to be in the making because of the many building sites, the cityscape rapidly changing. Of course, it is interesting to see how fast things changes in Berlin, only the discussion over re-building the former Palace of the Prussian kings, destroyed during World War II and replaced then by the regime by an ugly “Palace of the Republic” keeps going on. What strikes me again and again when visiting Berlin and wandering through the streets is how much of the city has been destroyed during the war, how radically the cityscape has changed since then, in most cases well documented and remembered by pictures or old plans.
This time I saw what is left of one of the most important railway stations of pre-WW II Berlin, the Anhalter Bahnhof. There is a large open space with grass and in the middle you can see the few relics, a small part of the façade. There are so many places and streets that were important for Berlin’s history and you think it is worth seeing them but when you are there you are aware that nothing or very little has remained of the old splendid buildings you expected to see. It is indeed often shocking and disappointing. But the new Berlin that is now again rising since reunification, obviously tries to make us forget all this history by its glittering new buildings. What for decades had been immediately before or behind the Wall is now again becoming Berlin’s centre of attraction, with the new Potsdamer Platz, which in the 1920s was one of Europe’s busiest corners and therefore was one of the first crossroads to be equipped with traffic lights, and the new Leipziger Platz which is gradually being completely built. People seem to like these new quarters but I think they are artificial and too smooth. I am always happy to see one of the old buildings that have survived the bombings.
What I really appreciate when being in Berlin is to go to one of the best book shops I knew in Europe for its huge stock on architecture, art and design. Unfortunately, it closed down two years ago because the owner retired. But there is still another good one, just below the arcades of the metropolitan railway at Savignyplatz. And, of course I cannot imagine a visit to Berlin without delving into the kilometres of bookshelves of the Staatsbibliothek and the nearby Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut which holds one of the largest collections of prints on the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world. Taken altogether all my visits, I now have spent around six weeks in Berlin and it always was too short!