Travel Tuesday: The Beauty of Berlin
By: Natasha Sivanandan
Berlin was probably the most perfect city to visit for my first real trip to Germany. I say this not only as an art history student, but also as an amateur admirer of urban culture. By ‘urban culture’, I mean the many spectacles you can find in large cities. These include street performances, graffiti, and simply the interactions between people within cold, concrete jungle environments, all working together to warm things up and bring their city to life.
I have lived in cities throughout most of my life, from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Bangkok in Thailand, New Delhi in India, Cleveland in Ohio, as well as Hong Kong and Singapore. I have also visited many cities such as New York, Chicago, London, Tokyo, and many more. And what you learn is that not all cities are alike. Berlin could be said to be more similar to London or New York, rather than Singapore or Hong Kong, but that is not to say that Berlin doesn’t have its own distinct culture. What Berlin did lack, however, was the pretence created by the overuse of a cityscape by Hollywood filmmakers! Berlin did what Berlin wanted, and it couldn’t care less what America or the world had to say about it.
As I took a cab to my hotel, we paused at a traffic light, and waited for a woman to cross to the other side of the road. Instead of crossing, however, she began a choreographed dance in the middle of the road accompanied with the colourful ribbons often seen at the Olympics. It was lovely, and I for one have seen a lot of performance art in my time! The majority are worthless pieces of artwork meant to shock or disgust the viewer. But this - this is really what performance art is all about! For the short amount of time a walker might have to cross the busy roads of Berlin, this dancer found a little moment to perform her art for us – a reminder that there is more colour to life than the greyness of our nine-to-five jobs.
This was how I was first introduced to Berlin, and I knew from that moment that this city was going to impress me.
During the week I stayed in Berlin, I barely scratched the surface of the city, but I definitely found some real gems. Thankfully, my Dad and I were staying in a hotel in Alexanderplatz, which was very close to all the museums and art galleries I wished to visit. It was also once the medieval quarter of Berlin before it was bombed in World War II. But it still maintained its historical charm due to an immense project carried out by the DDR government of the time to restore or even rebuild its older buildings. One building with a magnificent war history was the Berliner Dom (‘Dom’ meaning cathedral). It is an awe-inspiring work of great magnitude, and when you stand in the Lustgarten, the delightful square just outside the Dom, it really is magnificent. But this was not always how it had looked. With an influx of money injected into improving the Berliner Dom throughout history, it became more grandiose over the years. But, in 1944, a liquid incendiary bomb crashed through the dome of the Dom. Since the bomb fell in an almost inaccessible part of the cathedral, the fire raged on and brought the Dom to ruins. The restoration of the church began in 1975, but the entire project was only completed in 2002. The Berliner Dom really was a glorious piece of architecture. In fact, it influenced me to purchase a lithograph from an antique store dating back to 1835, which featured the Berliner Dom itself, and was used as part of a letterhead. As you can see, it was a very different sight back then, but still just as beautiful.
Another wonderful place to visit, and a favourite with tourists, would be the Berliner Fernsehturm (‘Fernsehturm’ means television tower). It was not only a fantastic piece of engineering, but also the beacon which helped me find my hotel whenever I got a bit lost, for it protrudes above all the buildings around it. The Berliner Fernsehturm is also (more importantly!) home to a fancy revolving restaurant that was definitely worth the trip. If you choose a night that is not too cloudy, and you come just before the sun goes down, you will get an amazing view of the city as the sun sets. The food itself was delicious, and certainly a place to go if you want a classy night out. However, admittedly, it was the fastest revolving restaurant I had ever been to, and you could really see, and sometimes feel, the floor moving beneath you. For me, though, this just added to the experience!
With regards to museums and galleries which I would recommend visiting, the Alte Nationalgalerie contains a huge range of modern artwork (and for any Klimt-lovers like myself, you will find quite a few other Secession works you may not have heard about before). And for anyone who needs their fill of the Classics, the Altes Museum was absolutely bursting with Ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan artworks, and was very well displayed. You really can get close and personal with almost everything inside it. I also insist that you visit the quaint Nikolaiviertel (meaning ‘St. Nicholas’ Quarter’), which sits at the heart of the reconstructed medieval Berlin. It is a great place to stop and take a break from your busy day. There is also the Nikolaikirche, which is the oldest church in Berlin, and dates from c. 1220-30. There are also plenty of little stores and coffee shops worth spending some time in.
Finally, there was a place I almost missed myself if I had not seen it on another lithograph which I found in the antique shop I mentioned earlier (and which I also went on to purchase). It really is a place you must not miss if you visit Berlin. It’s called the Gendarmenmarkt. ‘Gendarme’ is a French word, meaning ‘policeman’, as this was a square with great influence from the relatively large French community in Berlin. The Square consists of the three main buildings, the Französischer Dom, the Deutscher Dom, and the Konzerthaus. It is just beautiful, and even made my dad completely awestruck.
Berlin really is for anyone who enjoys a city with colour and vibrancy, because that is what this place has to offer. Cuisine ranged from traditional German to Vietnamese. The places to drink spanned medieval pubs to the Berghain, Berlin’s most exclusive nightclub. The museums and galleries were so vast in their collections I barely saw a third of what stands on ‘Museum Island’ (an area the major museums and galleries stand on, near to where the Berliner Dom is). And when it came to hidden gems, like the antique shop or a little wood carvers shop I also found, they are everywhere. You just have to keep your eyes open and go with the flow.
I would return back to Berlin in a heartbeat.