Berlin: Capital gain, with some pain

By Linda Kelsey, June 27, 2008

It is impossible to view Berlin as just another city break

From an upper storey of the Hotel de Rome, Rocco Forte’s plush new temple of contemporary good taste, the view is majestic. The square below and its surrounds were designed by Frederick the Great to showcase his political power and his interest in art and science.

Buildings he commissioned for the area include the Staatsoper (State opera), where today Daniel Barenboim is resident conductor; St Hedwig’s Cathedral, inspired by Rome’s Pantheon; and directly opposite the hotel, on the other side of Unter den Linden, Humboldt University, where Karl marx once studied and Einstein taught for more than 20 years.

I was admiring the grandeur of the architecture when I suddenly recalled the name of the square itself: a name which sent a small shiver running through me. Bebelplatz.

It was here that on may 10, 1933 that Joseph Goebbels organised a bonfire of more than 20,000 books written by Communists, pacifists and Jews. Even the romantic-sounding Unter den Linden has its ghosts. The famous lime trees that shaded its central walkway were ordered by Hitler to be cut down in case they spoilt the view of his parades.

And so it is with all Berlin. In a city that fizzes with energy, modernity and a vibrant and experimental cultural scene, history takes a hammer to your heart on almost every corner.

From the myriad reminders of the Holocaust to the still-painful memories of the Wall that in a single night in 1961 sliced the city in two, Berlin, for the tourist, will always be more than a flight to hedonism. Although for the most determined hedonists, its clubs, cafés and bars could easily have you partying 24/7.

Where do you start in a city which, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has the fastest-growing Jewish population in Europe? First up was the newly restored (at the city’s expense) synagogue on Rykestrasse, in the heart of gentrified Prenzlauer Berg, home to trendy design shops, well-priced restaurants and the largest number of babies in all Berlin.

Set alight during Kristallnacht, the early 20th-century synagogue was saved because of fears that a fire would spread through the residential neighbourhood. I was searching for a sense of the burgeoning Jewish community, but burgeoning is not quite the word for a congregation of around 30 that I encountered at the Friday-night service.

But the synagogue is far from disappointing, with seating for more than 1,000 (the congregation swells to several hundred on High Holy Days), shiny new pews and a gorgeous blue dome splashed with gold stars. As a symbol of renewal, it takes some beating.

Jewish Berlin could easily fill your entire visit. Daniel Libeskind’s extraordinary Jewish Museum with its zincclad exterior, and windows slashed through like jagged lightening streaks, startles you into silence and challenges you to stop and think.

The interior “memory voids” have an equal emotional impact in a building which makes just as powerful a statement of remembrance as the more recent Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. By comparison, the exhibition within the building, tracing the fate of the Jews of Germany over 1,000 years seems to have adopted a themepark approach: press this button to see what a Jew looked like!

That, at least, was how I felt on my first visit four years ago. This time, watching the groups of rapt schoolchildren and students, I rethought my position. This is a museum for those who do not know, as much as for those who do. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, created in 2005 between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, is in an area as large as a public square. With 2,700 stelae, arranged in undulating rows, grey and unadorned, each tilted at a different angle, it has become one of the city’s most-visited sites.

In evidence everywhere is Berlin’s acknowledgment of its former crimes. From the Topography of Terror, an open-air exhibition on the waste ground where the headquarters of the Gestapo once stood, to streets bearing the names of Ben-Gurion and political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

But Berlin beckons in so many other ways as well. Stay, if you can, in the Mitte, the historic centre of the former East Berlin.

From here to the Reichstag, with its dome designed by Norman Foster, is a walkable distance in one direction, while Museum Mile, with its five magnificent museums (three of which have now been restored), is just a few minutes the opposite way.

The Pergamon — one of the world’s most important archaeological museums — is overflowing with incredible antiquities that include the marble Pergamon Altar of Asia Minor, and the blue and ochre tiled gate of Ishtar, from the time of King Nebuchadnezzar. At the Altes Museum, a bust of Nefertiti makes you see just what all the fuss over her famed beauty is about.

If modern art is more to your taste, head for Hackescher Markt, also in the Mitte, home to well-heeled hipsters attracted both to its galleries and its night life. A group of Jews who settled here in the early 1900s built Hackesche Höfe, a series of charming interlinked Jugendstil courtyards, with decorative ceramic facades. Not to be missed nearby is Sammlung Hoffman, the private collection of contemporary art owned by Erika and Rolf Hoffmann. (Guided tours by private appointment Everything in Berlin is reasonably priced. From taxis to food, you will get far more bang for your buck than you do in the UK. The city is also awash with venues for the arts.

The Hotel de Rome, where I stayed, is perfectly placed. Fashioned from the former head office of the Dresdner Bank, later the Central Bank of the GDR, it has retained a number of original features in its wood-panelled suites and in a glittering, double-height ballroom. Two new floors have been added, as well as a huge roof terrace with open-air champagne bar and a basement spa in what was formerly the bank’s vault. Like all Rocco Forte hotels under the eye of design director Olga Polizzi, its style is classic contemporary rather than tiresome trendy. The bar at night is buzzing, and has live jazz.

Berlin is a fascinating city: troubling and exhilarating, repentant and exuberant, steeped in cultural tradition and embracing of the new. I’m determined it won’t be long before I return.


Travel Facts

Rocco Forte’s Hotel de Rome (0049-304606090; Berlin, has double rooms from €270 (£194) including access to the Spa de Rome. Air Berlin (, 0871-5000 737) offers four dailyflights from London-Stansted to Berlin. From £24 single inclusive.


Jewish Berlin

According to the central council of jews in Germany, an estimated 250,000 jews now live in the country.

Berlin has the biggest Jewish community in Germany with 12,000 registered members and eight synagogues.

Gabriel’s, at the Jewish Community Centre, (Fasanenstrasse 79-80), near the famous shopping district of Kurfürstendamm, is a well-recommended kosher restaurant.

    Last updated: 3:13pm, September 10 2008