Berlin’s relationship with Russia is unique. There are now an estimated 300,000 Russians living in the German capital, many of them Russian-Germans who arrived after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. One hundred years ago, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, thousands of Russian emigrés fled to the German capital. Many of them made their home in the borough of Charlottenburg, which soon earned the nickname ‘Charlottengrad’. At the Russian supermarket, next to Charlottenburg station, you can still buy Russian dumplings, wine, vodka and the classic Alyonka chocolate. The shop assistants all wear the same red t-shirt emblazoned proudly with the word ‘Russia’, in blue and white Cyrillic letters.
There is also a score of good Russian restaurants in Berlin. Top of the list is ‘Pasternak’ in Prenzlauer Berg, which occupies a large and picturesque corner site opposite ‘Dicker Hermann’ (‘Fat Hermann’), Berlin’s oldest water tower. I love the feel of this restaurant, especially in the evening. The dark wood bar and furniture, parquet-flooring, old posters, crystal chandeliers and piano combine to create an intimate and authentic atmosphere.
Pasternak after dark
The building was lovingly restored by its owner, a Russian-Jewish immigrant in the 1990s and just around the corner in Rykestrasse is the largest synagogue in Germany, originally built in 1903-1904.
I revisited Pasternak for dinner on a Sunday with friends, a couple of weeks ago. Our waitress was Latvian – full of good humour and helpful suggestions. We started off with mixed platters of Russian hors d’oeuvre. They were a sight to behold and everything tasted as good as it looked, especially washed down with the glass of vodka.
We chose red wine from Georgia – one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the world – to accompany the main course and each of us selected something different from the wide choice of Russian and Jewish specialities. They were all delicious.
Finally, we couldn’t resist finishing off the evening with a portion of blinis served with hot cherries and a serving of Russian ice cream. This was probably a bridge too far, but the retro extravagance of the desserts proved irresistible. Having paid the very reasonable bill, we walked outside into the rain and were further tempted by the bright lights of ‘Bar Gagarin’ on the other side of Rykestrasse. This is most definitely a cosy little corner of Russia in East Berlin.
Bar Gargarin at night
Another very popular Russian haunt is the Tadschikische Teestube, this time almost next to the historic Neue Synagoge at 27, Oranienburgerstrasse in Mitte, an area which has attracted many Russian-Jewish immigrants. The whole place was a gift to the GDR from the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan who brought the interior and the design to the Leipzig Trade Fair in the 1970s. In 1976, the Teestube opened on Unter den Linden as a permanent tea parlour and restaurant, complete with carved wooden columns, carpets and hassocks with low tables and kitchenware imported from Tajikistan. It was moved to its current location five years ago.
There are over 20 varieties of tea to savour at the Tadschikische Teestube and for a special occasion you can book a Samovar ceremony. The restaurant menu is suitably Russian too and apart from the magical interior, there is a beautiful courtyard outside. If you understand German, Monday evenings are reserved for the telling of Russian fairy-tales.
But Berliners have not always welcomed the Russians. When the Soviets marched into the city in April 1945, their invasion was characterised by the most terrible bloodshed, rape and pillage. On 20th April 1945, Hitler’s 56th birthday, Soviet artillery began shelling Berlin and did not stop until the city surrendered. According to one source, “the weight of ordnance delivered by Soviet artillery during the battle was greater than the total tonnage dropped by Western Allied bombers”. When the Soviets raised the Red Flag from the top of the Reichstag on 2nd May to signal their victory, Berlin was at its lowest ebb in history.
Iconic painting of the Red Flag
Things didn’t improve much during the years of the city’s division when the Soviets took over the eastern sector of Berlin after the war. During the workers’ demonstrations in East Berlin on 17th June1953, Soviet tanks and soldiers were brought in to quell the uprising, and hundreds of East Berlin citizens were killed. The Soviet Union was always proclaimed as the ‘great friend’ of the GDR Government, but many of its citizens would beg to differ.
Russian tanks in East Berlin, 1953
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet military left East Berlin and the American, British and French military left West Berlin. But the Russians have left behind so many more tangible memories than the Western Allies. They lost over 30,000 soldiers in the Battle for Berlin and the huge Soviet War Memorials in Treptower Park and on 17. Juni Strasse, near the Brandenburg Gate, bear witness to the massive price that Russia had to pay. For a detailed account of German-Russian relations, the Deutsch-Russisches Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst is well-worth a visit. It is only a pity that they no longer have the large-scale model of the Battle for Berlin which used to fill a whole room in the 1980s. It was apparently taken back to Moscow after reunification.
Celebrations in Treptower Park, 2015
You can actually get a feel for Moscow in the centre of Berlin. Just take a walk along Karl-Marx-Allee from Alexanderplatz to Frankfurter Tor and marvel at the chunky Moscow-style apartment blocks erected in the 1950s, when this boulevard was named ‘Stalinallee’. On the right-hand side you will pass Café Moskau, a striking 1960s-era building, originally built as an ‘international restaurant’ and conference rooms. Now it is the upmarket ‘Avenue’ night club and an event venue. Further along Karl-Marx-Allee, just before Franfurter Tor, is the aptly-named ‘Kosmos’, also now a large event venue and once the largest cinema in the GDR.
The Russians have certainly left their mark on Berlin and continue to shape its culture. It is worth remembering that Angela Merkel speaks excellent Russian, which she learnt as her first language during her GDR education and that Vladimir Putin spent five years living in Dresden, East Germany, when he worked for the KGB.
Heavenly views of Berlin are always a treat and in summer it seems as if every hotel in the city is competing to have the coolest rooftop venue. But Radio Eins has nailed the prize this year. To celebrate their 20th Anniversary, this radio station has transformed the conference room and roof terrace on the top floor of the RBB tower block into a sensational ‘Dachlounge’ (roof lounge). The initials ‘RBB’ stand for Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, the nationally-affiliated broadcasting company for Berlin-Brandenburg.
Looking up at the RBB tower block
A section of the Berlin Wall in the RBB gardens
‘Radio Eins Ganz Oben’ (‘Radio One right at the top’) opened its Dachlounge on 1st July and plans to close on 31st December. Entry is free – just be prepared to have your bag searched, before being whizzed up to the 14th floor from the outside lift on Theodor-Heuss-Platz in Charlottenburg. Then simply walk straight outside on to the terrace to enjoy the fabulous 360° views. There’s seating there as well and, in fair weather, a shed serving drinks and freshly-barbecued snacks. Last week, we were treated to a torrential downpour, followed by sunshine and a spectacular rainbow over Berlin. The views extended for miles.
Views in every direction
Inside, the RBB conference area has become a bar, a restaurant, a lounge and a studio – all in one space. Large company meetings apparently now take place in the RBB offices in Potsdam (which you can just about see in the distance from the roof terrace). The interior of the Dachlounge has a modern, loft-style feel to it, with orange and dark grey décor and full-length panoramic windows. Radio Eins is a radio station aimed at the over 25 age group and features plenty of timeless pop music as well as current hits, so the Dachlounge atmosphere is smooth rather than edgy.
Inside the Dachlounge
The opening hours are midday until midnight, seven days a week. You can go there for a meal or just call in for a coffee or cocktail. On weekdays, live programmes are broadcast from the Dachlounge between 7pm and 9pm – on these evenings you are advised to make a reservation for dinner. Places are limited to 150 guests. For a feel of the place, just follow this link for a video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sBpFK3OMlc
Of course, the tower block is only one part of the huge RBB complex. Radio and television history are intimately connected with Berlin and the original broadcasting building is the vast and imposing ‘Haus des Rundfunks’ (Broadcasting House) on Masurenallee, opposite the Funkturm (radio tower). The iconic ‘D’ shaped structure of the Haus des Rundfunks was designed by architect Hans Poelzig and built in 1929-31, using dark, shiny, clinker bricks. The transmitting studios radiate from the entrance hall and are enclosed within the offices.
The front of the main building
Close-up of the brickwork
The Haus des Rundfunks remained largely undamaged during the Second World War due to some ingenious methods to disguise its position from Allied bombers. After the war and until 1956, the entire building remained a Soviet enclave in the British Sector of Berlin and, since the Soviets only allowed the other Allies a fraction of the transmitting time, this led to the setting up of RIAS (Radio im Amerikanischen Sektor) in order to broadcast to Berliners the viewpoint of the West. SFB (Sender Freies Berlin,‘Berlin’s Free Broadcaster’) was established in 1956 by a West Berlin parliamentary act to create an independent broadcasting station for West Berlin. It wasn’t until 1957 that the Haus des Rundfunks, which had been left in a desolate state by the Soviets, was rendered operational by the SFB. In the mid-1980s I went on a guided tour of the Haus des Rundfunks and it was a fascinating place to explore. We were shown some of first recording studios in the world, under historic preservation order. The wood panelling around the concert hall where the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra recorded its concerts was taken from just one tree so that the sound absorption is uniform. And when the seats in the auditorium were lifted, they revealed perforations which acted acoustically in the same way as a person occupying the seat.
1980s aerial view of the SFB buildings
But despite its modern concept, the Haus des Rundfunks could not live up to the requirements needed for television and so SFB built a new tower block alongside it, on Theodor-Heuss-Platz. This was opened in 1968 and as some of the studios inside are situated directly over the U-Bahn, they are literally ‘suspended’ to prevent any vibrations from the trains running underneath the building. SFB continued to exist until 2003 when it was merged with ORB (Ostdeutscher Rundfunk Brandenburg East German Radio Brandenburg), based in Potsdam, to form RBB. For guided tours of the RBB studios follow this link: https://www.visitberlin.de/en/haus-des-rundfunks
View of the Funkturm from the Dachlounge terrace
Kreuzberg has always been a district on the edge – literally and metaphorically. When the city was divided, this West Berlin neighbourhood was enclosed on three sides by the Berlin Wall. Rents were cheap and it attracted hippies and artists, immigrants and squatters. These days, parts of Kreuzberg may be more gentrified and upmarket, but there is still an undercurrent of edginess in its multicultural landscape. The streets of Kreuzberg are noisy and colourful, yet it is always possible to find quiet corners where you can escape the hustle and bustle. One of my favourites is the Engelbecken (‘Angel’s Pool’), opposite Michaelkirchplatz.
Escape from the madding crowd
This man-made pool was once part of the Luisenstadt Canal, constructed in the mid-19th Century to link the Landwehr Canal with the River Spree. However, the Luisenstadt Canal wasn’t used sufficiently and its waters became stagnant. Between 1926 and 1932, the canal was partially filled in and transformed into sunken gardens, although the Engelbecken was retained as an ornamental pool and fountains were added.
Luisenstadt Canal in 1905
Engelbecken in 1937
During World War II, the gardens were badly damaged and later filled in with rubble. Then in 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed along the northern part of the former route of the canal and the Engelbecken simply became part of ‘no man’s land’ – the photograph below shows clearly how it had been filled in and flattened.
The Berlin Wall along the border of Kreuzberg
Since 1991, many of the destroyed gardens have been restored to their original design and the Engelbecken once again provides a perfect inner-city oasis. The Café am Engelbecken has generous terraces by the water’s edge where you can sit among rustling green reeds, watching swans glide past and the sun playing on the water’s surface. It’s a great tip for an ‘anytime’ meal. I love it for brunch, for its salads and pizzas and for magical cocktails at dusk. Follow this link for further details.
Behind the Engelbecken, among tall trees, are the ruins of St Michael’s Church (Michaelkirche), dedicated to the Archangel Michael, who gives his name to the lake. It was designed by architect August Stoller, dates back to the 1850s and was only the second Roman Catholic church to be built in Berlin after the Reformation. Theodor Fontane, the great German novelist of the 19th Century, thought St Michael’s to be the most beautiful church in Berlin. Sadly, it suffered terribly in bombing raids in 1944, but much of the exterior survived and walking through its grounds, you can still sense its former grandeur – even if it is now impossible to imagine it blocked off by the Berlin Wall.
To explore the German capital, it is not enough to walk the length and breadth of its streets. If you want to catch the Berlin Feeling and understand what makes this city really tick, you must enter a world that lies hidden behind the façades – the parallel universes of the Berlin courtyards. There is no other city in the world where this style of building construction is so seminal to its architectural style. Berlin’s ‘Höfe’ (singular: ‘Hof) contain apartments, offices, workshops, shops, galleries, cafés and gardens. They may be chic or shabby, interlinking or individual, but one thing is sure, this multiverse of courtyards pumps energy into Berlin street-life in a unique and fascinating way.
Berlin courtyards – My very own Berlin courtyard
The history of the Höfe goes back to the second half of the 19th Century when Berlin’s population began to boom. In the 1870s, there were over one million people living in Berlin; whereas in the 1820s, it stood at about 220,000. This massive population increase had dramatic effects on the social and economic aspects of city life. The city centre residential districts had to be utilized as much as possible and this resulted in the construction of tenement blocks called ‘Mietskasernen’ (literally ‘rented barracks’). These blocks were often built behind the prestigious street-front buildings that served as homes for the bourgeoisie and housed domestic employees, workmen, and poorer families.
Kreuzberg Hinterhof today
The ‘Hinterhof’ (‘backyard’) separated the various social strata and there were sometimes three or four such courtyards in a row, with the buildings at the very back having little sunlight and a darker atmosphere. Yet these courtyards were also the focus of daily life – even the bathrooms could be located there. Most of these historic tenement buildings have now been renovated and are highly-coveted residential properties. And with their varying garden styles and sizes, the back courtyards are a large part of their charm.
Berlin courtyards – 21st Century chic courtyard
There are several well-known refurbished and renovated courtyards in the central borough of Mitte in the ‘Scheunenviertel’, a poor working-class area just outside the old city walls. Although they are firmly on the tourist route, I always take visitors to the Hackesche Höfe. The eight intercommunicating courtyards have been wonderfully restored and now contain upmarket apartments, galleries, boutiques and cafés. The main entrance at 40, Rosenthaler Straβe opens into to Hof I, festooned with art nouveau tiling and containing restaurants, a cinema and the Chamäleon cabaret theatre. Hof VII leads to the romantic Rosenhöfe with its sunken rose garden and elegant balustrades.
Berlin courtyards – Hackescher Hof I
An absolute must is a walk through the Hinterhof of Haus Schwarzenberg, at 39, Rosenthaler Straβe where the buildings have not been gentrified. This backyard is now famed for its street art, but it also contains three excellent small museums about Jewish life in Nazi Berlin and an art-house cinema that shows films outside in summer.
Berlin courtyards – Central CInema in Haus Schwarzenberg
Around the corner in pretty Sophienstraβe, there are more courtyards to explore. At number 21, the Sophie-Gips-Höfe boast both the Hoffmann Art Collection and Café Barcomi in the shaded Hinterhof. The high walls of the first courtyard are inscribed with an interesting list of German adjectives expressing opposites. It is also worth looking into Paulinenhof, just along the street at number 28/29, an earlier example of the courtyard style, built in 1842.
Berlin courtyards – Sophie-Gips-Höfe
On the opposite side of Rosenthaler Straβe is Münzstraβe, a gently curving street lined with shoe boutiques and coffee shops. Until recently, the courtyards at number 21 still gave a wonderful impression of pre-war Berlin. Now they too have been spruced up and are clearly one of the on-trend places to hang out in Mitte.
Berlin courtyards – Breakfast in Münzstraβe
Nearby Auguststraβe is a street oozing with history, well-known for its galleries and restaurants. The KW Institute for Contemporary Art at number 69 has a pretty courtyard with a café and the legendary Clärchens Ballhaus, set back from the street at number 24, looks on to what was originally a Hinterhof – although in this case the Vorderhaus was destroyed in the bombing and no longer exists. Further along Auguststraβe, just before Tucholskystraβe, there is a sign into the Heckmannhöfe, a courtyard complex which links Auguststraβe with Oranienburger Straβe. This idyllic urban retreat dotted with shops and restaurants surrounding a small playpark, comes as a complete surprise and gives a photogenic view of the golden dome of the Neue Synagoge.
Berlin courtyards – Lunch in the Heckmannhöfe
For a final courtyard visit in the Scheunenviertel of Mitte, I recommend the Missing House Memorial at 16, Groβe Hamburger Straβe, created in 1990 by French artist, Christian Boltansnki. Here, a tenement building on a Hinterhof was destroyed by bombing in 1945. There is now just an empty space with large plaques bearing the names of the people who lived placed at the relevant level the plain walls of the surviving buildings on either side. The café next door to the memorial is called ‘You’re so welcome’ and lives up to its name. Its terrace opposite the Jewish School and the Jewish Memorial outside the Jewish Cemetery is a perfect place to reflect on the pre-war life of the courtyards in this part of Berlin.
Berlin courtyards – The Missing House
I never miss an opportunity to walk through entrances and open gates to see if there is more discover behind the buildings that line the pavements; the Hinterhöfe are the Narnia of the Berlin. For further reading, follow this link to an interesting article on the Deutsche Welle website.
Dussmann das Kulturkaufhaus. Berlin may be famed for its dark history and decadence, but it also has a reputation as a city bursting with culture. Music, literature and the arts have always flourished in Berlin and never more so than in its current 21st Century, post-unification era. What other cities in the world can boast a huge ‘Cultural Department Store’, open Monday to Friday from 9am until midnight, on Saturday until 11.30pm and on some Sundays, too?
The iconic Dussmann building
‘Dussmann das Kulturkaufhaus’ is a unique store, offering an amazing selection of books, CDs, DVDs, sheet music and stationery. In fact, every product that a culture vulture could dream of. There are also regular cultural events such as readings, book signings and musical performances, and a brilliant café in the basement. The owner, Catherine von Fürstenberg-Dussmann describes her store as “the beating heart as the city” and compares Dussmann to a church; a place where people come together, reflect, and communicate with one another. How much better to browse at Dussmann, with the help of expert advice, than alone at home on the internet.
Dussmann originally opened in 1997 and immediately raised the bar for international book and music stores. For the past twenty years, whenever I have been anywhere near Friedrichstrasse, the main shopping artery of Berlin’s ‘City East’, the draw of this Aladdin’s cave has proved irresistible. Since February 2017, all five floors of the store have been reorganised and refurbished. Dussmann remained open during the building works and despite the upheaval, the loyal customers kept coming in. Now, everything seems more spacious than ever, as dividing walls have been removed, storerooms knocked through into the shopping area and more seating areas provided.
The towering atrium
On the third floor are text books and a Berlin Wall Memorial display with touch screens, complete with a piece of Wall signed by Ronald Regan. On the floor below are popular non-fiction books and children’s books. The first floor has novels, audio books and a huge selection of international DVDs. On the ground floor is the most comprehensive selection of books about Berlin in the capital, hundreds of Rock, Jazz and Pop CDs and a tempting range of ‘papeterie’. If you walk through to the back of the ground floor, there is even a separate two-floor English bookshop where ‘Shakespeare meets Auster’. And the basement has a wonderful classical music department with sheet music as well as CDs and space not only to listen to music, but to try it out yourself on an electronic piano.
DVDs of films set in Berlin
Classical listening space
Dussmann is a great place to meet up. It’s situated in the cultural heart of Berlin and is not only a unique shopping experience, but also boasts ‘Café-Restaurant Ursprung’ (Source) open from 9am until 9pm, six days a week, where you are encouraged to ‘eat-drink-dream’. Hype aside, this basement refuge has a relaxing vibe and an imaginative menu. You walk through the ‘nave’ of the store to be greeted by a sphinx at the top of the staircase and a vast back wall featuring a 270-square metre vertical garden of over 6,000 tropical plants. This spectacular ‘Mur Végétal’, designed by French botanist and garden architect, Patrick Blanc, has quite a wow factor – rather like the whole Dussmann experience.
An impressive café entrance
Inside Café Ursprung