Monday, 9 November 2009

Backwater Berlin

Berlin feels like Germany's Venice. Not because of the canals - they've some stone-built stretches hedged by monumental buildings but are mostly industrial and functional, and anyway Venice is visually incomparable. It's more the sense of being in a city that had witnessed great events - a weltstadt around which the affairs of the globe had turned - but no more.

Even now it's the capital of a united Germany, it still has the air of being a way away from where important things are happening. It can't shrug off its backwater feel. This is one of its attractions. Much of it now belongs to history and it's unimaginable that it'll ever have the central importance to the world - or even to Germany - that it once had.

This makes parts of the central Mitte district interestingly incongruous. The nineteenth-century neo-baroque Berlin Cathedral (below), for instance, whose minatory ugliness no longer has anyone to overawe. Its scale - intended to diminish St Peter's - was a monument to the Kaiser's imperial ambitions. Later it provided the setting for Göring's overblown marriage, which, reflecting the poltroon's princely ambitions, was said to rival any royal wedding. Patched up after the war, it squats there now, gaudily overblown but with only its local evangelical congregation to dress up for, a redundant gargoyle.

So it's a fascinating backwater. Monumental grotesqueries aren't the half of it. There's so much that's significant, old and modern, sitting one thing atop of another. There should be a clash between the architectural aspirations of old Berlin and the ravages inflicted on last century Berlin. But it's come to look all of a piece. Exemplified, in a way, by terrific treasure house museums that still carry the etchings of Soviet bullets.

It's also a fantastic place to go out. Where Venice has its mannered and stilted carnival, Berlin has a nightlife as rough, ready, sophisticated and bohemian as anything you'll find in the East or West Ends of London. I've rarely had so much fun out with friends as I have in Berlin.

In the twentieth century Berlin went from furnace, making and then being unmade by the flames of world war, to deep freeze, the most frozen and isolated spot in the Cold War. Now, twenty years after the Wall came down, it's arrived at an ambient temperature. The city now lives mildly at one remove from history, no longer suffering in its extremes.

Happy and affectionate twentieth birthday wishes, united Berlin!


Brit said...

Yeah can you try and be a bit more prolific please Gaw, it's tedious waiting the fourteen seconds between each lengthy, content-rich post.

worm said...

berlin is a great city indeed, especially when it comes to property prices!

don't think I could cope with berlin winters though...brrrrrrrrr

Brit said...

Yeah it is a great city, i went about 5 years ago and it remains my second favourite euro city after Barcelona. And great for going out: bits of it reminded me of bohemian Bristol, it was that good. (Although in some areas teeming with aggressive prostitutes, along one street I recall being constantly propositioned by these terrifying Amazonian east-Europeans in three-inch thick make-up, despite (a) it being broad daylight; (b) it being a normal, busy shopping street in, i think, Mitte and (c) the fact that I was clinging for dear life to Mrs Brit's arm and staring determinedly into the middle-distance, thinking of England.)

Gaw said...

Brit: My posting may slow down a bit soon, as I'm beginning to start work, or bits and bobs of it anyway. Thank God I've got the blog as an outlet - as I'm feeling better the mental energy is surging. Not sure what would become of me if I couldn't splurge it all out here.

I suspect you walked down Oranienburger Strasse. T used to live around the corner and so I used to regularly run this gauntlet.

A couple of observations: firstly, I believe these leggy, slim 'ladies' to be in fact trannies; secondly, if you peer into the darkness you can clearly observe clients having it away with them in the shallow strip of park neighbouring the road. As you say, quite shocking for an innocent Brit. They do however leave you alone once they realise you're just a fascinated, if rather appalled, observer.

Worm: I've never come across such committed slackers as I have in Berlin. And you're right, it's because they can live in large tenement apartments for practically nothing. British property prices are the curse of the drinking class.

Anonymous said...

bits of it reminded me of bohemian Bristol

I know the feeling. When I'm in Rome and in a reflective mood, I can see similarities to downtown Ottawa.