I could see the old Berlin cathedral across the river Spree, which flowed past the hotel window. Amid the rushing crowds, mostly bundled in shades of black and gray to ward off the cold wind, stood Rashid Ali’s stall of colourful Russian memorabilia. Why Russian? I asked. Ali, from Pakistan, said there was a market for the fur caps and military collars and other erstwhile Soviet memorabilia he claimed came from Russia.
Completely covered except for his eyes, Ali’s stall was at one end of the main flea market that started out from the old Humboldt University. In Berlin for over a decade, eking out a meagre living from selling the wares, Ali was hopeful that peace would prevail between India and Pakistan despite the unsettled times General Pervez Musharraf is going through.
Mitte’s the place to be. It’s the heart of Berlin, where the tram lines run and what was East Berlin during the Cold War, where the history and soul of the city is.
From Unter den Linden, resplendent in its autumnal colours, to Kurfurstendamm and the Adlon Hotel at the Brandenburg Gate Square, it’s all here. The Adlon Hotel, where a young Indira Nehru stayed with her ailing mother Kamala Nehru on her final journey to a Swiss sanatorium, survived the bombing during the Second World War. Devastated in a fire soon after, the hotel was rebuilt largely retaining its pre-war features at one end of Kennedy Square.
The Federal German Foreign Office, also located in Mitte, is another reminder from the divided times. Known by those who work in it as the “palace of the thousand windows,” because of the endless numbers of drab, square windows, (a nightmare for the cleaners!) its conference rooms and halls have all retained the high ceilings and insignia of the erstwhile German Democratic Republic or communist East Germany.
The Wall sells
The Cold War may have ended over 18 years ago, but the wall is thriving business. Every tourist shop sells what is called “authentic” pieces of it, leading you to wonder what a massive divide it must have been.
Especially when a lot of the wall has been left for visitors to get a feel of what it was like during those four decades of divided east and west Germany. One check post above a section of the wall that cut through a graveyard had us conjuring up visions of (John) le Carre’s Karla and Smiley’s other people.
There is a major overdose of kitsch at ‘Checkpoint Charlie,’ with people parading as GIs waving US flags in front of a small bunker and posing for pictures for cash. The Wall even bifurcated the Reichstag (Parliament) building. The Germans are still trying desperately to come to terms with their National Socialist (Nazi) past. At the Reichstag, burnt in 1933 and redone by British architect Norman Foster, the guide kept emphasising that Adolf Hitler had never entered the building.
She showed us a memorial book and epitaph dedicated to the opposition SPD and Communist party politicians sent to the infamous concentration camps at Dachau and Bergen-Belsen for opposing Hitler in the early 1930’s, well before the Holocaust. The stark Holocaust memorial is a bunch of 1,100 or so granite slabs of different sizes; one for each Jew sent from Berlin station. After the memorial was built, they found the bunker in which Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s PR man, was buried.
A night at the opera
We decided a night at the opera would bring some colour into what was turning out to be a really dreary week, news and weather-wise. So Boris, the ‘minder,’ turned ‘culture vulture’ had arranged tickets for a show of classical German opera; Carl Maria von Weber’s ‘Der Freischutz’ loosely translated as ‘The Marksman’ or ‘Freeshooter.’
There was a lot of colour, with large crowds dressed to the tees, thronging the opera house. The first act of the opera was a novelty, but it was difficult to stay awake through the second act. A teleprompter-like ticker above the curtains allowed the audience to follow the dialogue and songs. Except it was all in German. After the interval, however, the third act suddenly got all racy and interesting, with graveyard scenes and souls being traded with the devil and dramatic denouements. Reminded me in parts of those hindi news channels which perennially show graveyards and gore. Clearly, trade-offs and blood sell, the world over! There are two of everything in Berlin; two town halls, two national museums, two national opera houses. Weber was playing at the German National Opera House, in erstwhile West Berlin.
Portions of food at restaurants are humongous. An order of eisbein, a typical Berlin dish of cured leg of pork in this century- old restaurant off Kurfurstendamm was enough to feed an average family of six! Combined with a glass of beer the size of a two litre bottle of coke each of us healthy eaters gave up less than a quarter of the way through, gasping for air.
For a chocaholic, it was a must. Entering the world’s oldest and largest (according to them) chocolatiers, Fassbender and Rausch, was almost like a kid entering Disneyland. One display window had a massive replica of the Titanic, another of a local cathedral, and one more had a replica of the Brandenburg gate, all in rich dark chocolate. After some weeks the chocolate from those specials would be given away to children who thronged the store gaping at the Christmas specials and sampling the hand-made goodies on display.