Rory Maclean reveals the hidden corners you must seek out in his adopted home city of Berlin
Rory MacLean’s BERLIN: Imagine a City is a portrait of the city like no other, spanning five hundred years, with intimate biographies of residents from Isherwood to Goebbels, Dietrich to David Bowie (both of whom Rory worked with). The book offers a richly varied, unexpected and insightful tour of one of the world’s great cities.
Calling upon his intimate knowledge of the city, Rory recommends five places you must visit during your time in Berlin.
Berlin is a place where men set their dreams in stone, or at least in brick and concrete. It is not an ancient city. It has no Roman remains like London, no catacombs like Paris. Its youth always spurred it toward the future. Yet at the same time it forever longed for a noble past, so has created buildings to perpetrate its own myth. Over twelve years the Neues Museum, a bombed-out ruin since 1945, was repaired and rebuilt by British architect David Chipperfield. His recreation is a striking and exciting building which can be read like a book, telling – through its original walls, surviving textural details, all-but-lost classical frescos and soaring new spaces – the story of man’s ability to create, destroy and preserve. It is the perfect museum for Berlin.
Berghain is the world capital of Techno, a former power station which has been converted into a sensational dance club. The bass beat grips the chest and pounds the body in waves so powerful that – in the second when they stop – one feels like a dust mote floating up into the yawning cavern of the building, towards the 18-metre-high ceiling. All variety of sexual fantasies are indulged here, so bring both an open mind and ear plugs (which are essential and not considered uncool). Don’t arrive before 4 am…
After Bergheim, one needs a little down time. Café am Neuen See is a Seventies glass pavilion dropped into the Tiergarten park, surrounded by lush trees, fronting a lake, flooded with light and fantastic nosh in the heart of the old West. Berliners have refined Sunday brunch into the planet’s most relaxing meal with croissants and conversation, eggs, salmon and contentment, all washed down with litres of strong coffee. Afterwards rent a rowboat and drift beneath weeping willows on the Neuen See – and regain your hearing.
Unlike other European capitals, the radiance of modern Berlin shines brightest against the darkness in its past. Once it was the largest Jewish city in the world. One third of the hundred richest Prussians were Jews. By 1945 Hitler had destroyed Germany’s rich diversity, making it both poorer and more homogeneous. The Jewish Museum – with Libeskind’s twisted and tortured extension -- explores two millennia of German Jewish history. But far from being locked in the past, the museum looks forward with child-friendly tours, weekend workshops and special shows including a history of Jewish ceramicists and radical Jewish music in New York.
Bernauer Strasse witnessed some of the most tragic scenes when the city was divided in the Cold War: East Berliners jumped from apartment windows, drove through crash barriers, tunnelled beneath the street in an attempt to reach freedom in the West. The Berlin Wall Memorial -- Die Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer – consists of the city’s only preserved (and unadorned) stretched of border fortifications as well as a superb museum. While there, don’t repeat the fallacy that John F. Kennedy called himself a jelly doughnut during his visit to the city. In one of the most moving speeches of the 20th century, JFK said, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. Nothing was wrong with his grammar, it had nothing to do with sweet pastries, and everything to do with faith in democracy. No Berliner misunderstood him in 1963.