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Imperial Cities: Berlin

11 November 2015

I recently took a fascinating trip through Europe's imperial cities. My first stop was Berlin, and it was everything I expected it to be and more. If you like history, good food and culture, you shouldn't miss out on Germany's capital. 

Something I noticed in my recent stay in Berlin, something that ran as a theme throughout the city - and it's no small city (four times the size of Paris), was its innate ability to sustain human expression. To support, nurture and accept seemingly all forms of humanity. And to think that Germany's capital is a city that has truly been through the furnace of history; battered, beaten, divided and utterly split apart. Though on the other side of this great tumult, it emerged with a pulsing and insatiable heart, and today stands as a testament to modern European civilisation with an edgy gait to its step. 


A simple walk around the heart of Berlin is enough to be caught in its web of spells, all the usual elements of a modern metropolis are here; excellent shopping, innumerable coffee houses and a good number of squares and green space. An interesting collection of modern architecture is on almost every street corner, and in the outer environs the colourful street graffiti is more an eye-opener than an eyesore. While on the march street food pervades at all the most popular tourist sites, I tried the Currywurst close to Checkpoint Charlie - chopped German sausage covered in a curry sauce and sprinkled with mustard powder, I went back to try both versions - east and west, one was more spicy than the other, I don't remember which. 

Brandenburg Gate

Checkpoint Charlie itself, which was once the site of former Soviet-American tension in the Cold War is now just a hut in the middle of a street flanked by a McDonalds, the sign says 'You are leaving the American Sector', I'll leave you to decide whether that is true or not. In comparison the Brandenburg Gate is much grander and more imperial. A monument that is important to Berlin because of what it represents, the gate was part of a Berlin that was heavily bombed and fiercely fought over prior to the surrender of Germany in 1945, the neoclassical arch survived with only a few bullet holes and remnants of shrapnel damage. It is often considered to be emblematic of a Europe and Germany that went through war and emerged dramatically changed but essentially whole on the other side. During the Cold War the gate was a monument overshadowed by the divisive Berlin Wall and was made inaccessible, only until after the wall was torn down did the Brandenburg Gate become a public space again - it featured heavily on global media coverage of the wall's destruction - and has since become synonymous with the moment Germany was reunified. 

Prussian style pork skewer

Regarding food, Germany likes its meat - that isn't in question. I tried a Prussian style pork skewer dish with a creamy mustard-like sauce, washed down rather handsomely by a pint (or stein) of Berliner Kindl, a smooth pilsner that seemed to complement my dish excellently, though whether by accident or design I wasn't sure. I enjoyed it. Dessert was a cinnamon infused apple strudel that was equally as hearty as my main. Thankfully there is plenty of urban jungle to stroll around in the evening to walk off any excess calories you might have gathered.

Naturally on a Friday evening in Berlin the nightlife has its own kind of draw, just as strong as the monuments who's pull beckon in the daylight. In my experience, Berlin's drinking scene is a mixture of traditional, honest dark wood-clad pubs and lively bars and night clubs. Rounds (for three) ranged between €10-€20. The beer was generally excellent; from pilsner, lager and wheat beers to anything in between. We ventured into a sports bar and on upstairs a bin lay upturned and emptied onto the floor, I couldn't decide if it was an edgy piece of street art or just an obstacle downed by someone who had one too many beers. What I can say, is that all the watering holes we visited were populated by cheerful and friendly folk, both Berliners and tourists just like us, with smiles glancing across the room and not a dour face in sight. Overall Berlin is a city that has its own distinct personality, charming and at ease with itself, a great place to visit, the city lets you do your own thing and rewards you for exploration.