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Travel: Revisting the real roaring Twenties in Berlin

Berlin. Picture: PA

Berlin. Picture: PA

  • by ANTHONY LOOCH
 

A CHORUS line of 32 stunning girls, high-kicking on a vast Berlin stage, prove to me that the city’s 1920s theatrical traditions are still alive and blooming.

I’m watching the multi-million pound revue Show Me, which opened last year at the enormous Friedrichstadt Palast in Berlin’s East End theatre district, during celebrations of the city’s 775th anniversary.

Heavily influenced by America’s Ziegfeld Follies, it follows the tradition of German directors such as the great Max Reinhardt.

He staged similar productions in Berlin during the Golden Twenties, a period with which the city will always be associated.

In the new liberal Weimar Republic created after the First World War, with stuffy Kaiser Wilhelm exiled to Holland, Berlin shed its inhibitions wildly.

Censorship had been abolished and experimental theatre, music and film-making flourished. The city’s cultural offerings were the principal marketing feature for attracting visitors then, and this still applies today.

I first visited the city in 1966, when it was already divided by the Wall, although tourist access to the Mitte (central) area behind the Wall was still possible.

The Friedrichstrasse, the pre-war Oxford Street of Berlin, was a ghost of its former self. and the bombed Potsdamer Platz - an intersection as famous and busy as Piccadilly Circus before the war - was no longer functioning near the militarised Checkpoint Charlie - the main crossing into East Berlin through the Wall.

But now, standing at the Brandenburg Gate, looking down the Unter den Linden, I’m struck by how much rebuilding has taken place since 1966 and how the city is recovering, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

The legendary Adlon Hotel - before the war, it was Berlin’s Ritz - is back in business as the Adlon-Kempinski. It was destroyed in 1945 and rebuilt on its old site only after the Wall came down in 1989.

Around the corner from the hotel is the Wilhelmstrasse - the Whitehall of pre-war Berlin. Hitler’s huge modernist Reich Chancellery, built by Albert Speer, used to be close by, but nothing of that remains today.

The notorious bunker where Hitler committed suicide has gone too. Years ago it was filled in, to avoid it becoming a shrine for neo-Nazi elements.

Short-stay visitors to Berlin will focus on the Mitte, where the principal sights are to be found. I base myself at the excellent budget hotel Motel One Berlin-Hauptbahnhof - named after the nearby main railway station into Berlin.

I opt for some unconventional methods of sightseeing. First, I take a tour in a bicycle Velotaxi. Pedalled by a fit young man, who acts as my guide, I perch at the back, sheltered by a small roof and with a blanket over my lap. To my relief, we travel on broad cycle lanes on the pavement much of the time, but when we hit the roads, the Berlin traffic not nearly as heavy or threatening as in London.

My next expedition is a Trabi Safari - a two-hour car trip along the route of the Wall, and its separate Inner Wall, covered by graffiti and also more serious art.

The novelty of this scary, interesting and often hilarious tour is that we are travelling in a convoy of probably the worst cars ever made, the Trabant, manufactured in East Germany in the Communist days and designed as their version of a ‘people’s car’.

Berlin has never had a reputation for great architecture. The old Reichstag building - now the German Parliament, the Bundestag - does, however, have a striking glass dome created by Sir Norman Foster.

But in the main, the interesting things in Berlin Mitte lie indoors - in the shops, restaurants and bars, theatres, cabarets, clubs and, above all, in the wonderful museums. There are five on the so-called Museum Island and many more elsewhere.

Berlin has not shied away from its 12 grim years under Hitler. There is a riveting photographic display of those times in the bomb-site basement of what used to be Gestapo headquarters at the Topographie des Terrors.

For me, the greatest symbol of Berlin’s renaissance is the rebirth of the Potsdamer Platz. It is back in business and what had been ground zero is a busy traffic intersection once again and the home of skyscrapers - which stand out in Berlin’s strikingly low-rise skyline.

On Ebertstrasse, which runs up from Potsdamer Platz to the Brandenburg Gate, lies an important and significant memorial. It is modern Germany’s riposte to the Holocaust.

The memorial to the victims takes the form of more than 2700 blocks of grey stone, which visitors can wander through. The experience is designed to reflect the disorientation and sense of being lost which the Jews suffered.

The memorial overlaps the site where the town house of Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels once stood.

Before Hitler rose to power, this buzzing city was one of the most exciting places in Europe. Today, much of that vibrancy appears to be resurfacing.

 

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