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Berlin is still emerging from the shadows of the past

Timothy Barber
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WHEN you walk across the joint expanse of Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz in central Berlin, you&rsquo;re surrounded by futuristic architecture, vast advertising hoardings, neon-lit brand names and thundering traffic. It makes it easy to forget you&rsquo;re crossing what was once known here as the &ldquo;Death Strip&rdquo;. A cobbled line marking the old route of the Berlin Wall, dissecting the multiple traffic lanes and ending in a few dilapidated but still-standing wall fragments in a corner of Potsdamer Platz, is the only reminder that, twenty years ago, this was the frontline between East and West. The Death Strip was the area between inner and outer walls where escapees could be picked off.<br /><br />Today the city celebrates the 20th anniversary of the end of that symbol of&nbsp; brutality, and there is perhaps no better testament to its failure than the transformation of this area, rendered derelict by the wall,&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; into a celebration of thrusting capitalism. The half-circle, 26-storey Bahn Tower &ndash; headquarters of railway company Deutsche Bahn &ndash; towers above like a great, glimmering barrel, sitting beside the huge glass and steel cone of the Sony Centre, a shopping and entertainment complex designed to resemble Mount Fuji. Amidst all this shiny modernity, the actor in an East German soldier&rsquo;s uniform manning those remaining bits of wall for the benefit of tourists is as absurdly out of place as a bloke in lederhosen I see giving traditional pony-and-trap rides past the Sony Centre.<br /><br />Yet only a few hundred yards east from Leipziger Platz, opposite the grey bulk of Herman Goering&rsquo;s air ministry fortress (now home to Germany&rsquo;s finance ministry), there still lies a huge strip of fenced-off, weeded-over wasteland, undeveloped and unused. It&rsquo;s one example of the way in which, two decades after the opposing sides of the city merged once again, Berlin is still a place of tremendous contrasts &ndash; and all underpinned by its lingering 20th century tragedies. To an outsider, there&rsquo;s the sense that the city still doesn&rsquo;t know whether to remember or forget the dark and dreadful events that played out here &ndash; and it&rsquo;s something that makes this such a fascinating place to visit.<br /><br />From Potsdamer Platz you can walk north, skirting the central green space of the Tiergarten, towards the city&rsquo;s two grandest symbols, the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. That both survived the battle which raged here in 1945 is remarkable; on your route you pass two reminders of why such destruction came. The Holocaust Memorial, a maze of stone slabs like gravestones that get larger and more foreboding the nearer the centre you get, is a strange, sombre remembrance of something far too frightful for any single memorial to do justice. A few streets away, the site of the bunker in which Hitler lived out his final days is no less strange, though nothing of it remains. Surrounded by an ugly block of Soviet-era apartments, an unkempt car park now occupies the spot. It&rsquo;s all the more eerie for its sheer mundanity.<br /><br /><strong>HOPEFUL<br /></strong>There&rsquo;s nothing mundane about either the vast Doric columns of the Brandenburg Gate, or the Reichstag. In the latter, Norman Foster&rsquo;s glass cupola with its spiralling walkway and viewing deck over the city is one of the few places in Berlin where the horrors of the past &ndash; the building was the Third Reich&rsquo;s seat of government, as it is of the present one, and the site of the most horrific fighting as the city fell &ndash; are successfully reconciled into a hopeful, thrilling symbol of renewal.<br /><br />For a less dramatic vision of the past, it&rsquo;s perhaps an irony that Berlin&rsquo;s better-preserved areas are in the east rather than the west &ndash; with less money to spend on rebuilding, the GDR concentrated on restoration. After the fall of the wall, areas like the Spandauer Vorstadt, north east of the city centre, and Kreuzberg further south, also became the focal points for the blossoming cultural scene. In the former, the little courtyards and restored 19th century avenues around Auguststrasse have now become heavily gentrified, but a fine cultural life of independent galleries, cafes and restaurants endures. Tacheles, a sprawling art squat with a punky sculpture park and graffiti-strewn cafes, may be dismissed by counter-culture veterans as a mere tourist trap now, but it&rsquo;s worth seeing this motley netherworld all the same.<br /><br /><strong>GOTHIC EDIFICE<br /></strong>There&rsquo;s little beauty to be found in the Fifties sprawl of central west Berlin, though there&rsquo;s a lot of shopping to be done in the big label emporiums around Kurfustendamm. Halfway along that boulevard, however, is Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the 19th century gothic edifice destroyed by bombing during the war. Its jagged shell was transformed into a memorial to the old, destroyed city &ndash; a peculiar, awkward monument buttressed by some truly appalling post-war civic architecture. <br /><br />I found a more subtle memorial further east, in Sophie Gips Hofe, one of the numerous courtyards crammed around the rather beautiful avenue Sophienstrasse. <br /><br />This tiny, orange-bricked space in the heart of the old Soviet zone contains a smart, convivial caf&eacute;, an art gallery, and much small-scale beauty. Looking around, <br />though, you notice that the restoration work didn&rsquo;t reach into this courtyard &ndash; the bricks are strewn with bullet holes and shrapnel marks. Something ferocious occurred here, but the space has been renewed and given life, without completely covering up the ugliness of the past. It&rsquo;s an effect the city generally is still attempting &ndash; to varying levels of success &ndash; to accomplish.<br /><br /><strong>TRAVEL FLIGHTS AND DEALS<br /></strong>British Airways flies to Berlin several times a day from Heathrow Terminal 5. Current packages with the airline include two nights at the four star Albergo Hotel Berlin from &pound;233 during November, including return flights from Heathrow. The airline is also offering one free night for stays of three nights or more at the Andels Hotel Berlin between 14 November and 29 December. From &pound;260 per person including return flights and accommodation with breakfast, based on two sharing.<br />Visit www.ba.com/berlin or call 0844 4930758 for more information. <br /><br /><strong>HISTORIC BERLIN&nbsp; &nbsp; WHAT TO SEE</strong><br /><strong>1. The Reichstag</strong> &ndash; Built in the late 19th century, the seat of German government is a grand neoclassical pile. All but a ruin during the Cold War, it was resurrected in the 1990s. Its glass cupola, designed by Sir Norman Foster, contains a spiral walkway winding up to a viewing deck with stunning views across the city. <strong><br />2. The Stasi Headquarters</strong> &ndash; This huge complex on Normannenstrasse in the city&rsquo;s eastern suburbs now houses a fascinating museum detailing the complex surveillance techniques employed by the East German police.<br /><strong>3. Checkpoint Charlie</strong> &ndash; The famous gateway in the Berlin Wall between East Berlin and the Allied military zone seems rather kitsch among all the smart shops and offices of Leipziger Strasse, but is nevertheless worth seeing.<br /><strong>4. Topography of Terror</strong> &ndash; a somewhat ad hoc, but nevertheless highly moving, outdoor exhibition detailing the work of the SS during the Nazi era. The grounds beneath the exhibition once held the cellars of the Gestapo headquarters.<br /><strong>5. The Mauermuseum</strong> &ndash;This museum tracks the story of the wall, with intriguing details of the many escape attempts made by East German citizens.<br /><strong><br />WHERE TO STAY&nbsp; TOP HOTELS<br /></strong>Berlin&rsquo;s most famous hotel, and still the swankiest place to stay, is The Hotel Adlon, which sits across the road from the Brandenburg Gate. The grand building was ruined during the war and eventually demolished. However a replica was built in the 90s, which is now part of the luxury Kempinski Hotel group. It has a Michelin-starred restaurant, an extensive spa and, of course, superlative views of Berlin&rsquo;s greatest landmarks. Rooms from &euro;250 per night (www.hotel&ndash;adlon.de). <br /><br />If you fancy something a little further from the tourist mix and nearer the shops, the Kempinski group&rsquo;s Hotel Bristol in central West Berlin is barely less lavish. The pool in its spa is particularly recommended. Rooms from &euro;250 per night (www.kempinksiberlin.de).<br /><br />For a hotel with more of a contemporary design bent, head to the Mandala Hotel in the thriving heart of Potsdamer Platz. A member of Design Hotels, the place has an airy, highly contemporary feel with spacious rooms, the picturesque Facet restaurant and a beautiful roof-top spa with views across the city. <br />Rooms from &euro;270 per night. <br /><br />(www.designhotels.com/mandala).