Mum and Dad are over here at the moment and we wanted to go abroad for a few days. So where did we decide to go, you know, it being winter and all? Spain? Morocco? No. We went to Germany. Turns out Berlin is rather fracking cold in January.
But that didn’t really matter because the city is so stuffed with culture and things to see that we didn’t spend a lot of time outside. And besides, the snow on the ground made everything look prettier and the sub-zero temperatures made you glad you brought the long underwear.
We got started as soon as we arrived with an extra-special behind the scenes tour of the Reichstag. Foster+Partners were responsible for the transformation of the German Parliament building so Kathryn managed to arrange for one of the chief architects to show us around this amazing building. We started by bypassing the huge and ever-present queue of people (even in sub-zero tempartures) to enter at the side of the building. Once inside we saw the Russian graffiti that has been preserved on the walls from when Red Army soldiers took the building in 1945. Even though I had no idea what it said it was amazing to see the scrawls of charcoal made by many different young soldiers’ hands more than sixty years ago. The reconstruction has been done in a way that turns the Reichstag into a kind of living museum of German history. Much of the insensitive reconstruction work that was done in the sixties has been stripped away and the original grand proportions have been restored. Everything inside is on a massive scale; doors are over two metres high, window panes are the size of terrace houses and the couches make normal chairs look like doll’s furniture. But within the context of the building it all fits perfectly.
We got to see many other areas of the Reichstag that are normally off-limits to visitors and as we were accompanied by one of the architects responsible for the building he could provide insights into why things had been done a certain way and how the building is used. Of course we finished with a visit to the huge glass dome that provides views from east to west as you circle higher and higher up the walkway that traces the inside of the glass.
That evening we went to the Philharmonie to see the Berlin Philharmonic. Yes, they were great, although they seemed to get better as the night progressed. The first piece, Three Illusions by Elliot Carter, was quite a challenging work (both to listen to and to play) and there were a few hesitant entries when the firsts weren’t together. But when Murray Perahia joined them to play Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto they were back in familiar territory and played with such sensitivity from the first note. I particularly loved the way Perahia played the Rondo. So did everyone else it seemed as they demanded he come back for an encore. I don’t know what it was but it was simply stunning. Then in the second half the orchestra doubled in size and let rip with the Strauss Sinfonia Domestica. I didn’t know this piece but it was typical Strauss; huge orchestra (8 horns!, 4 saxophones!), and big lush melodies that seem to go on forever. In fact the whole piece does go on forever as there are no breaks between movements but I really liked it. It was my favorite, actually. The piece supposedly represents the goings on in the Strauss household:
My next tone poem will represent a day in my family life. It will be partly lyrical, partly humorous – a triple fugue will bring together Papa, Mama and Baby.
The next day we saw Checkpoint Charlie which, although there isn’t much there now, remains a distillation of pure Cold War. There are reconstructions of the iconic wooden guard house and the signs informing that you are “leaving the American sector”. You can also pose for a photograph with US and Russian ‘MPs’ and get historic stamps in your passport, which of course we did. In one of the buildings next to the guard house is a private museum called Haus am Checkpoint Charlie. This is a really interesting museum packed with stories of escapes and Wall memoribilia including the original American sector sign.
On our last day we visited the Pergamon Museum on Museum Island or Museumsinsel which contains such monumental antiquities as the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, and the Ishtar Gate. While it might not have as much loot as the British Museum what it does have is of great interest so it’s worth a visit.
Looking out the window of the plane as we swept over the snow covered fields on approach to Tegel I was a little worried whether Berlin in mid-winter was such a great idea. But as it turned out it’s a great time to go. Everyone else is either skiing or waiting for the warmer weather so the streets are quiet and when the sun shines on the snow-covered rooftops Berlin can be quite beautiful.
More pictures in the gallery.