Germany: Born-again Berlin

By Susan Buckland

Susan Buckland goes on a bike tour to explore what is now Germany's hottest city

In the 1700s, citizens were allowed to pass through only the outer pillars of the Brandenburg gate in Berlin. Photo / Getty Images
In the 1700s, citizens were allowed to pass through only the outer pillars of the Brandenburg gate in Berlin. Photo / Getty Images

Berlin is hot. People are flocking to the German capital to experience the avant-garde city that has emerged since the Berlin Wall came down 23 years ago.

Berlin is also flat. Exploring it on a bike, even when cycling into an autumnal headwind, feels good.

We picked the non-strenuous sounding Easy Cycling Tours and it turned out to be run by Aucklander Peter Mackay, who spends time in the city every year and is restoring a historic railway station near the city.

We collected the bikes from Motz St near a grocery store with an exotic past. In the 1920s it was the Eldorado, a favourite haunt of Marlene Dietrich and a glamorous entourage of night-life loving patrons. The club rocked on until the Nazis closed it in 1933.

Today a solitary image of Dietrich hangs above the boxed potatoes. But colourful shopfronts on Motz St suggest life after dark lives on. "Berlin doesn't sleep," said our guide Matthias. He recommended a behind-the-curtains tour which kicks off at midnight.

The bike tour set out from the towering Victory column in the centre of the Tiergarten, Berlin's Hyde Park equivalent. From here we pedalled east.

Germany was reunited 23 years ago, but only one West German in five has set foot in the east, says a report in Germany's Daily Bild. And only one in 10 East Germans has travelled west.

On our bikes, however, it took only minutes to cycle from west to east Berlin. "East is where Berlin is edgiest," shouted Matthias over his shoulder. "It's where you find things like art galleries in World War II bunkers."

At Potsdamer Platz which, like most of Berlin, had been destroyed by the Allies' bombs, we admired skyscraping architecture and clusters of cranes preparing the way for more. Chunks of the Berlin Wall remain in the square as reminders of the not-too-distant past. Over on Muhlen St is the most arresting remnant, a 1.3km stretch of the wall decorated by international artists and called East Side Gallery.

We pedalled up to Checkpoint Charlie to find the former Berlin Wall crossing point choked with tourists cramming together for photos with the Russian or American border "guards". The scene was light years from the photos on nearby walls depicting the grim Cold War reality of a city divided, with guns and tanks at the border.

En route were other sombre reminders of the past; the remarkable Jewish outdoor memorial representing a supposedly ordered system that had lost touch with human reason. And the empty library in Bebelplatz, a poignant memorial to the nationwide day of book burning in May 1933.

Our guide, who spent his first year of school under the regimented thumb of the German Democratic Republic, pointed out the mural on its former headquarters of cheerful, uniformed children following their beaming teacher to some imagined utopia.

"I put that blue ribbon tie around my neck for school each morning," said Matthias. "I didn't know anything else. It's a different world now."

So saying, he plunged us into Kreuzberg on the former east-west border, where street art, Turkish markets, politically aware residents and hip cafes merge in an increasingly trendy suburb. Berlin's stimulating Friedrichstrasse, a 3km long shopping street, starts in Kreuzberg. We cycled up to Alexanderplatz, heart of the east, and into a melange of pretzel sellers, buskers, acrobats and gypsy children seeking donations to trumped-up causes.

On elegant Unter den Linden, we ogled flash German cars behind huge shop windows before cycling up to Museum Island. Five days of exploring its five magnificent museums would barely scratch the surface. Along the river were views of ICE trains bulleting out of Berlin's state-of-the-art central railway station. Continuing west we arrived in front of the city's most famous landmark. Crippled during the bombing of Berlin, the restored Brandenburg Gate stands proud again, its crown of chariot horses galloping into the future. The born-again Aldon Hotel inside the gate on Pariser Square is also a sign of a rejuvenating Berlin. Michael Jackson dangled Blanket from one of its windows. We sipped tea in its Art Deco lobby.

Passing through the central arch, previously the preserve of German emperors, we headed back west up June 17th St, named for the 1953 uprising of East Berlin workers brutally suppressed by Red Army tanks. A view of Chancellor Angela Merkel's uber-modern office jolted us into the 21st century. Across the way, sun glanced off the dome of the Reichstag. From up there, you can have great (and free) views of Berlin and also federal politicians in the debating chamber below.

In the warmer months, the cycle tour ends at Cafe am Neuen See in the Tiergarten. But on this crisp October afternoon we headed for a cafe in Kurfurstendamm St, where west Berlin marches to its own dynamic beat. Here multi-tasking Matthias said "auf wiedersehen". He was off to help at a charity bingo event hosted by drag-queens.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific operates a daily one-stop service via Hong Kong to Frankfurt, with connections to Berlin.

HOT SPOTS

Gendarmenmarkt
A lovely square with two churches and a theatre

Ka De We for shopping
Queen of elegant department stores

Wiesenstein on Viktoria Platz
Excellent Swabian restaurant

Mauerpark on Sundays
Free busking entertainment

The pulse of tango
In the 19th century dance hall on August St, Mitte

- NZ Herald

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