FEW cities are as haunted by their past and their politics as Berlin. Around almost every corner there’s a reminder of its turbulent 20th century history – and one of the most potent of those reminders is being celebrated, if that’s the word, this year.
August sees the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall and I’ve come to explore what remains of it and the divisions it created across the city. It’s not, however, a wholly sober trip. I’ve signed up for a tour in a Trabant, the notorious national car of East Germany, and there’s the prospect of mainland Europe’s biggest department store.
But first: getting there. Rather than fly, my wife Clare and I are travelling to Berlin in the way most visitors would probably have reached it back in 1961: by train.
We set off from home in Sheffield mid-morning, take an East Midlands train down to London, and cross the platform for a Eurostar to Paris. We arrive in time for an earlyish dinner, or in our case an earlyish sandwich at Gare de l’Est, before boarding the 8.20pm sleeper to Berlin. There’s a great sense of anticipation about this trans-continental caterpillar of a train as it waits under the platform’s harsh fluorescent lights,and, bang on time, the guard blows his whistle and the train eases out of the station.
Our berth is cosy (almost a pas de deux whenever we both try to get round), the beds are comfortable, and there’s a washbasin in the corner and a shower at the end of the corridor.
We speed through the night, past the metropolis of dark skyscrapers that is Frankfurt at 3.45am, and wake to coffee and croissants as dawn breaks over the misty plains and forests of northern Germany.
It’s terrifically civilised and romantic, and slightly surreal, to arrive at Berlin’s swish new Hauptbahnhof station at 9.01, exactly, on the dot. Real travel, not just transit.
Travel is very much a theme of our weekend. We use WelcomeCard passes on the buses, trams and overground and underground trains: all fast and reliable.
The contrast between the ease of getting round the sprawling city today and the potentially fatal problem of getting across it during the Cold War is highlighted at the Mauermuseum, near Checkpoint Charlie.
Dedicated to the Wall, it describes the often desperate ways East Berliners tried to escape to the West – in hot air balloons, hidden in suitcases and cable drums.
Outside, a tattered Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag droops and street traders sell key rings with, they say, authentic fragments of graffiti-daubed Wall attached. A resoundingly worded sign announces, “the western world ended and the power of the Moscow Kremlin started, from here to Vladivostok”.
Around the corner is the starting point of our “Trabi tour”. Trabi was the semi-affectionate nickname East Berliners gave to their Trabant (“companion”) cars.
More than three million were produced over 30 years of the Communist regime. They look a bit like Triumph Heralds, or perhaps Reliant Robins with an extra wheel but less sophistication. They were basic – two-stroke engines, reinforced plastic bodies – but had one technical nicety: drivers could plug in electric razors and shave at the wheel.
Clare and I shoehorn ourselves into the back seat of one of them and tuck our knees under our chins as driver Frank Lagershausen switches on the ignition and the car coughs and splutters into life, like a smoker on 60 a day. As we trundle through the streets, front-seat guide Simone Matern gives a running commentary of the sights through the steamed-up windows – the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the State Opera, the Tiergarten park, the half-dozen world-class museums.
When we pull up at traffic lights, the brakes let out a scream of terror. Passers-by stop and stare. There’s a great deal of nostalgia for the Trabis, says Simone. “They’re cute little cars. Maybe you noticed that not much happens when you step on the accelerator?”
The nostalgia flourishes in a movement called Ostalgie – “nostalgia for the East” – which is celebrated at the absorbing DDR Museum. It explores East Berlin life before the Wall came down in 1989. Visitors poke around a recreated 1970s flat, with its floral wallpaper, net curtains, cassette player, copies of Sputnik magazine... and radiators, we’re alarmed to see, exactly like our own at home.
Propaganda films celebrate the joy of these high-rise concrete flats, accompanied by Schubert at his most bucolic, and a display on the annual Women’s Day notes drily: “The husband put on the apron, put a bouquet on the table and made his wife breakfast.
“He gave a speech on the equality of men and women in socialism and did the dishes. The next morning, everything returned to normal life...” The museum’s excellent café serves cabbage roulade and dumplings.
A bleaker tribute to Berlin’s partition has been created at the outdoor Wall Memorial, which preserves a stretch of the “Death Strip” with watchtowers and photographs of would-be escapees who were shot dead. The border guards’ brutality is defended in a recording of a magnificent piece of double-speak by an East Berlin propaganda chief: “Every shot saves hundreds of comrades. You are not shooting at brothers and sisters... how can he who betrays the republic be your brother?”
Former East Berliners are still gripped by the night the Wall came down. “Next morning, the streets in the East were so empty it was like a ghost atmosphere; everyone had gone over to the West,” says Denise Meyer, a schoolgirl at the time.
Now she is director of marketing at the Hollywood Media Hotel, whose film theming runs to a Ben Hur Room, a King Kong Apartment and Psycho posters.
We’re staying in the Richard Burton Room. In the event, the only traces of Burton are two framed posters of him gazing soulfully out of the window at Kurfurstendamm, the Champs-Elysses of Berlin. The street’s focal point is KaDeWe, mainland Europe’s biggest department store, whose food hall stocks more than 1,000 types of cheese and probably enough sausages to circle the globe (I haven’t verified this claim scientifically).
Smart restaurants are springing up around Kurfurstendamm, including the Brasserie Franke, whose eclectic menu includes fish and chips (the chips come in a newspaper cone). More traditional is the nearby Wintergarten Café im Literaturhaus, whose gilded rococo ceiling and lively atmosphere make it a delightful place for a late-afternoon glass of wine.
We breakfast in Berlin, take the train through a silver-frosty landscape to Cologne, another train to Brussels, then Eurostar and home in time for dinner. Did I say trains were civilised?
• Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk) has return fares from London St Pancras to Berlin, using the sleeper from Paris, from £161.
• East Midlands Trains (0845 712 5678; www.eastmidlandstrains.co.uk) has returns from Sheffield to St Pancras from £14.
• Hollywood Media Hotel (0049 30 8891 0270; www.filmhotel.de) has doubles from 95 euros per night, including breakfast.
• Visit Berlin: www.visitberlin.en.