Pulse of Europe in Berlin

Pulse of Europe in Berlin

Last Sunday, I joined some Berlin friends at the Pulse of Europe demonstration on Bebelplatz, on Unter den Linden. This square, which was called ‘Opernplatz’ before the war, has a dark history. It was where the Nazi ‘Burning of the Books’ took place on May 10th 1933 – exactly 84 years ago as I write this post. But in 2017, a large friendly crowd was standing in the sunshine, waving European flags. French flags were in evidence too, on the day of the French Presidential Election.

The Pulse of Europe demonatration

 Bebelplatz in the May sunshine

Demonstrations are an intrinsic part of Berlin’s street life. It’s a city where people feel passionately about issues and at the weekend you can almost guarantee that there will some kind of public march or rally. On May Day, protests by political extremists often descend into violence and riots, although this year the multi-cultural ‘Myfest’ in Kreuzberg went ahead in relative calm.

Peaceful revellers at Myfest 2017

Peaceful revellers at Myfest 2017

Various speakers addressed the crowd from the stage. Some had planned their words, others were more spontaneous. Each person who spoke then received a small bunch of lily of the valley (in German: Maiglöckchen – ‘little May bells’) for their contribution. Their personal stories all held the same message: European unity is the only way forward. Especially memorable were the words of a Jewish Berliner who told us that the EU is “the answer to the Holocaust”. Another speaker described the EU as “the most precious gift of the 20th Century”. Many of them referred to the ideals of French political economist and diplomat, Jean Monnet, considered one of the founding fathers of the European Union in the 1950s.

The stage complete with piano

The stage complete with piano

The organisers of the Pulse of Europe demonstration had distributed sheets printed with the German words of ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. After the speeches, we all sang along to this European anthem, accompanied by live piano playing on the stage. Finally, we joined hands and danced around the square. It was hard to imagine that this square had once witnessed such hatred and violence.

Dancing round the square

On one side of Bebelplatz, is the beautiful Law Faculty building of Berlin’s Humboldt University (see first photo). This used to be the University Library, from whose windows Nazi students threw books that they considered ‘unGerman’ on to the bonfire below. A hundred years earlier, the German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) had written the prophetic lines: “Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.” Set into the ground on Bebelplatz is a memorial to the burning of the books. It consists simply of empty bookshelves and beside it a bronze inscription with Heine’s warning.

Book Burning Memorial

When the Pulse of Europe demonstration broke up, we walked back across Unter den Linden between the Neue Wache and the Gorki Theatre and paused by the statue of Heine, sitting smiling and relaxed among the chestnut trees. Heine’s later verse and prose are full of satirical wit and irony and his radical views led to him being banned in his own country. He spent the last 25 years of his life in Paris.

Heinrich Heine statue

 

Historic Crossing Point

Historic Crossing Point

Berlin is best known for its 20th Century history and any mention of the word ‘crossing point’ summons up visions of Checkpoint Charlie, the Glienicke Bridge or the Soviets crossing the Elbe in World War II, prior to the Battle for Berlin. But there is a more significant crossing point in the history of Berlin, dating back almost 800 years when there was a settlement on each side of the River Spree – Berlin and Cölln.

Model of Berlin-Cölln in the Märkisches Museum

The first documented reference to these settlements was made in 1237 and it was around this time that the Margraves (military governors) of Brandenburg used Berlin and Cölln to secure the crossing point of the Spree at Mühlendamm (Mill Dam). Towards the end of the 13th Century, the twin towns Berlin-Cölln had outstripped the older towns of Köpenick and Spandau in importance and in 1280 the first Parliament of the Margravate of Brandenburg was established there.

View northwards from the Mühlendamm Bridge today

There are very few genuine traces of the original settlements of 13th Century Berlin. The ‘Nikolaiviertel’ occupies the area where Berlin was first founded and before it was devastated in the war, it contained some of the oldest buildings in the city centre. After the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, this district became part of East Berlin, but it wasn’t until 1979, in the run-up to the 750th Anniversary of the city, that reconstruction of the Nikolaiviertel started.

Aerial view of the Nikolaiviertel

During the eight-year project, the GDR authorities made an attempt to recreate this historic quarter, but since almost none of the buildings are located on their original sites, and many of them were built with prefabricated concrete slabs (a style referred to in German as ‘Plattenbau’), the Nikolaiviertel was often scornfully referred to as ‘Honecker’s Disneyland’. Yet despite its lack of authenticity, the Nikolaiviertel’s narrow, pedestrianised streets are popular with tourists and its cafés and restaurants alongside the Spree are particularly inviting in the summer months.

The Spree terraces in the Nikolaiviertel

In the heart of the Nikolaiviertel is the oldest church in Berlin, the Nikolaikirche, which gave the quarter its name. It was probably built shortly after Berlin was granted town privileges, but the building has undergone a great deal of reconstruction over the centuries. A presbytery was built in 1402 and the two towers were added in 1877. The Nikolaikirche was destroyed in 1945 by bombing and completely rebuilt in 1987.

The reconstructed Nikolaikirche

The Nikolaikirche is no longer a church, but now forms part of the Stadtmuseum (City Museum) with a permanent exhibition called ‘From the Base of the City to the Double Spire’, although only the stone floors date back to the 13th Century. From 1st April until 28th May 2017 there is also a special exhibition, ‘Saint Luther’, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

Inside the Nikolaikirche

In front of the church is a small square, Nikolaikirchplatz, with an octagonal fountain known as the Wappenbrunnen (coat-of-arms fountain), created in 1987, and based on a design from 1928. On each side of the fountain is a relief showing a coat-of-arms and in the centre is a column with a statue of a bear. The bear symbolizes the city of Berlin and the fountain commemorates the founding of the city and is therefore also known as the Gründungsbrunnen (foundation fountain). Set in the pavement outside the Nikolaikirche is another memorial to the birth of Berlin in the form of a two-metre wide copy of the original seal of the city.

The Wappenbrunnen and the Berlin city seal

The other building in the Nikolaiviertel which has links with the 13th Century, is the Gerichtslaube, a reconstruction of Berlin’s medieval courthouse. It was originally built in 1270 in Gothic style with arcades, and was integrated into Berlin’s medieval town hall. In 1871, the Gerichtslaube was demolished during the construction of the imposing Rotes Rathaus (the ‘Red Town Hall’). When the Nikolaiviertel was recreated in the 1980s, a replica of the Gerichtslaube was erected about 150 metres from its original location. It is now a restaurant serving traditional Brandenburg fare.

The Gerichtslaube – in 1860 and now

But you need to cross the main road of Grunerstraβe to find the most authentic witness to the medieval twin towns. On Littenstraβe, almost hidden between the Amtsgericht Mitte (district court of the borough of Mitte) and Berlin’s most historic restaurant, ‘Zur letzten Instanz’, is a small section of the ancient city wall, dating back to the 13th century.

The old city wall near Berlin’s oldest restaurant

Nearby are the ruins of the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche, a Franciscan monastery church dating back to 1250, devastated during allied bombing in 1945. The remnants of this ancient church are surrounded by trees and grass and make a picturesque setting for outdoor exhibitions, concerts and theatre performances. It is a wonderfully tranquil spot, with few tourists, and perfect for contemplating the vagaries of European history.

The monastery ruins

Just across the street is Klosterstraβe underground station, which has a nostalgic charm of its own. There is a historic train carriage at the end of the platform and beautiful ceramic tiling modelled on wall decorations in the Palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II in ancient Babylon. This station is usually very quiet and makes a good start and end point to a stroll through Berlin’s oldest streets – even if it is the modern vision of the Fernsehturm (TV tower) that greets you as you emerge up the stairs into the daylight. 

The palms of Babylon

Klosterstraße station

A Traditional Treat

A Traditional Treat

‘Kaffee und Kuchen’ is one of the best traditions in the German-speaking world. To translate it just as ‘coffee and cake’ is about as accurate as describing English ‘afternoon tea’ as a hot drink with a sandwich. Both ceremonies are social rituals. Starting at about 4pm, they involve taking a break from the day and relaxing with friends or colleagues, either at home or in the kind of café where time is not of the essence. Viennese-style coffee houses encapsulate this atmosphere. With their high ceilings and chandeliers, polished wooden tables, newspapers on wooden holders and waiting staff dressed in traditional black and white, they ooze slow living and fin de siècle charm. Ironically, Trotsky is said to have planned the Russian revolution from the Café Central in Vienna, a favourite haunt of bourgeois intellectuals. There’s a Café Central in Innsbruck too, where I captured the Kaffee und Kuchen scene last Sunday afternoon.

Traditional Coffee House scene

So what about Berlin? Probably the least bourgeois of German cities, the German capital is best known for its trendy coffee bars with edgy barristas and shabby-chic cafes with organic teas. But there are plenty of places where it is still possible to indulge in Kaffee und Kuchen in its purest form. Café Einstein Stammhaus in Kurfürstenstrasse is Berlin’s closest offering to a Viennese coffee house. Housed in a beautiful late 19th Century villa, it’s a great place to go for Kaffee und Kuchen. And with its Austrian links, the Apfelstrudel and Sachertorte are top choices for cake lovers.

Inside Café Einstein Stammhaus

It has an interesting history too. In the 1920s, the building was owned by Jewish private banker Georg Blumenfeld and later used as a secret gambling club for the high society of the Weimar Republic. When the National Socialists came to power in 1933, they closed the club. Blumenfeld and his wife were disowned and finally driven to committing suicide. The Nazis took over the villa and Goebbels supposedly gifted it to his secret mistress, Henny Porten, a famous actress at the time. After Henny moved out, it became an illegal SS officers’ casino. The villa miraculously survived the wartime bombing and opened as the original Café Einstein in 1978, at exactly one hundred years old. It proved a great hit with the  West Berlin literati and since then has spawned many other Einstein cafes all over Berlin. The only other Café Einstein with that stylish, historic feel perfect for a Kaffee und Kuchen experience is on Unter den Linden.

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The grand villa building in Kurfürstenstrasse

But the most genuinely historic of all cafés in Berlin is Konditorei Buchwald, a traditional cake shop just by the Moabiter Brücke over the River Spree. The café interior is like a large living room, not as grand as a Viennese coffee house, but there is the same feeling of being in a time-warp. No typing on laptops, mobile phone tunes or background music to disturb the social intercourse here. In summer, the tables set outside in the garden have an equally peaceful setting, with only birdsong to compete with conversation.

Inside Konditorei Buchwald

Gustav Buchwald originally founded the cake company in 1852 in Cottbus, his son moved the business to Berlin at the turn of the century, and it has been run by members of the same family for five generations. The full story is fascinating, and German speakers can follow this link to a Tagesspiegel article which gives all the details. The most recent owner is Andrea Tönges who took over in May 2015. Her grandmother was in charge from 1935 and her mother from 1963. Both Andrea and her mother are ‘Konditormeister’ (master confectioners) and Andrea’s son has chosen the same career path.

Three generations of confectioners – with their famous Baumkuchen

Baumkuchen to take home

Buchwald’s speciality is the ‘Baumkuchen’ which translates literally as ‘tree cake’. The recipe is a secret, but certainly features plenty of sugar, spice and marzipan. The cake mixture is rolled onto a sort of spit (now metal, but originally made of wood) that slowly turns over an open flame, creating fine layers upon layers which look like the growth rings of a tree – hence the name. The cake is then sealed with a glaze or covered in chocolate. The result is so delicious that in 1883 the Buchwald bakery received a warrant of appointment to make Baumkuchen for the royal household. And even now, the Schloss Bellevue, once home to Frederick the Great’s youngest brother, Prince Ferdinand of Prussia, and now the official residence of the German President, is just a walk away in the north end of the Tiergarten.

Queuing outside Buchwald’s

As you enter the shop, the display counter is crammed with cakes (Kuchen) and gateaux (Torten), including several varieties of Baumkuchen. All around the walls and windows, shelves are piled high with more Baumkuchen, beautifully wrapped in all shapes and sizes, which you can buy to take home. When I was last there, a group of tourists came in just to buy the cake as souvenirs and to take photographs. But they missed out on the unique Kaffee und Kuchen ritual: first, the all-important selection of a slice of cake, then the settling into an hour or so of ‘Kaffeeklatsch’ – chatting over coffee.

Selecting a slice of cake

To be sure of a table at Café Einstein or Konditorei Buchwald, especially on a Sunday afternoon, you need to make a reservation. All the details are on their website links below. You can find other café suggestions in a previous Café Society blog, ‘The Great Berlin Cake Off’ (October 2014).

http://www.konditorei-buchwald.de/

http://www.cafeeinstein.com/en/

 

 

Museum Barberini – the new pride of Potsdam

Museum Barberini – the new pride of Potsdam

Potsdam is the capital and crown jewel of the Federal State of Brandenburg. Renowned for its exquisite baroque architecture, beautiful Prussian royal palaces and gardens, in 1990 it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage City status. Wartime destruction and the lack of funds during the bleak GDR years left terrible scars on the city centre, but since reunification it has undergone a massive programme of reconstruction and now positively gleams in its new grandeur and glory.Only a 22-minute train journey from Berlin main railway station, Potsdam is not only a great lure for visitors, but has become one of the most sought-after residential addresses in Germany.

Panoramic view of Potsdam in 1871

In January, Potsdam gained yet another fabulous attraction – the Museum Barberini, a museum inside a palace. The ‘Palais Barberini’ was originally built by the Prussian King, Frederick the Great in 1771/1772 next to the Stadtschloss (Potsdam City Palace) and modelled on the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. Destroyed in a bombing raid in 1945, it has now been reconstructed as a museum by the Hasso Plattner Foundation. At the official opening, its creator, media magnate Hasso Plattner, a co-founder of the multinational software company SAP, described the Museum Barberini as his gift to the city and “one of the most important things” he had done in his life. Plattner is a member of ‘The Giving Pledge’, a group of billionaire philanthropists who promise to give half their wealth to charity during their lifetime or in a will.

Queues of visitors outside the Museum Barberini

Plattner’s assets are estimated at $9.8 billion and his substantial private art collection will form the core of exhibitions. The museum’s first exhibition, for example, showcases Edvard Munch’s ‘Girls on the Bridge’ which Plattner is said to have bought at Sotheby’s last November for $54.5 million.

‘The Girls on the Bridge’

His social circle is sufficiently elevated that both Angela Merkel and Bill Gates attended the museum opening. Frau Merkel reportedly declared the museum to be “breathtaking”. Plattner has now been made an honorary citizen of Potsdam, a title he shares with Berlin luminaries such as landscape gardener Peter Joseph Lenné, naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and President Paul von Hindenburg.

Hasso Plattner with Angela Merkel

The opening of the Museum Barberini marks the end of years of strife. There were disputes over everything – from what Plattner was allowed to exhibit to where the museum should be built, and the project nearly foundered on several occasions.  But Potsdam’s Barberini has finally been reincarnated on its original site and completes the historic rebuilding of the fabulous Alter Markt square, which also includes the Parliament building for the State of Brandenburg. The cost of reconstructing the historic façade of the Palais Barberini and creating its modern, airy interior is estimated to have been more than €60 million. For further details, follow this link to a recent article in The Economist.

 

The reconstructed Alter Markt Square

(photo by Konstantindegeer, March 2016)

I paid my first visit to the Museum Barberini a couple of weeks ago and adored it. The beautiful exterior architecture speaks for itself and the three state-of-the-art exhibition floors are light and crisp, with 7-metre high ceilings and fabulous views from large windows. In the summer the building’s regal position on the waterfront of the River Havel will undoubtedly be a great attraction in itself. 

Reflected glory….

The debut exhibitions at the Barberini Museum are ‘Modern Art Classics: Liebermann, Munch, Nolde, Kandinsky’, and ‘Impressionism: The Art of Landscape’, featuring works by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Caillebotte, among others. Both of them are perfectly curated and carefully themed. Most of the works are labelled ‘private collection’, although there are some on loan from major art galleries around the world. It is not clear how many of the paintings actually belong to Plattner himself.

‘Liebermann versus Nolde’

Impressionist seascape and snowscape

Apart from the two major exhibitions, other attractions include a display of Rodin sculptures loaned by the Musée Rodin in Paris and on the top floor the museum features an auditorium with a ‘smart wall’ where visitors can forensically examine most of the collection’s paintings, which have been reproduced in high resolution images. Just as interesting are the contents of the gallery next to auditorium, telling the fascinating history of the Potsdam Barberini Palace. After its illustrious beginnings under Frederick the Great, by the time of its destruction in 1945, it was being used as a youth hostel, public library and registry office.

Rodins  in the Lelbach Gallerty

English speakers are well catered for in the Barberini Museum. All the information, including the large panels and the useful descriptions of individual works, is given in both English and German. Headphones are available at €2 or the Barberini App can be downloaded free. The Museum is open from Wednesday to Monday from 11am to 7pm, as well as on the first Tuesday of each month until 9pm. Admission is €14. Forthcoming exhibitions include ‘From Hopper to Rothko: America’s road to Modern Art’ (3 June until 3 October) and ‘Behind the Mask: Artists in the GDR’ (28 October until 11 February 2018).  I would recommend booking online in advance as this museum is proving hugely popular. The excellent café on the ground floor is doing a roaring trade too.

Tegel and Humboldt

Tegel and Humboldt

Most visitors to Berlin associate Tegel with the name of the main airport. But for Berliners themselves, it has always been an area on the north-west outskirts of their city famed for its beautiful lake and dense forests. In 1793, a vicar who fancied himself as a poet coined a phrase still used by Berliners today – ‘mit Kind und Kegel raus nach Tegel’, an encouragement to make an outing to Tegel ‘with the family and a ball’. In those days the journey from the city centre might have taken a couple of hours by farm cart, now the U-Bahn Line 6 gets you to Alt-Tegel from Friedrichstraβe in about 20 minutes.

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Coming in to land at Tegel Airport

The attraction of plenty of space and fresh air is the same over two centuries later, even though Tegel is much more built-up. The glorious scenery around the lake probably hasn’t altered much and there are still endless possibilities for walks and boat trips. In summer, there is also an official lakeside beach with water slides, a diving platform and café – a great alternative to Wannsee. But now is one of the best times of the year to head out to Tegel; the leaves are changing colour and there is usually plenty of warmth left in the early autumn sunshine. Last Monday, I was especially lucky with a temperature of 25°C, a clear blue sky and only a light breeze.

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Strandbad Tegel in late September

I arrived at Alt-Tegel U-Bahn station and walked down the cobbled, tree-lined high street called Alt-Tegel towards the lake. It leads past cafés and ice-cream parlours, the old village clustered around the church and then on to the impressive Greenwich Promenade. Here colourful flower beds, a British red telephone kiosk and old street lamps create an English seaside atmosphere reminiscent of Worthing. The stunning vista of the Tegeler See (Lake Tegel) combined with a series of jetties advertising a variety of boat trips proved irresistible.

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Alt-Tegel

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The ‘Havel Queen’ on Greenwich Promenade

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The British touch

I decided on a two-hour boat trip northwards to Nieder Neuendorf and back. This covered the Tegeler See itself and a stretch of the Havel River in the former GDR, outside the boundaries of Berlin and where I had previously never ventured. It was a magical mystery tour. The ‘Havel Queen’ made its way regally through calm waters, past islands and forest edges interspersed with small marinas and lakeside settlements. It was useful to have a walking map of Berlin and its surroundings in order to follow the boat’s route. There was occasional commentary in German, but not enough to disturb the peace and the top deck was only half-full. Friendly waiters were on hand to supply drinks and snacks, but it was all pleasantly low-key.

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Waterside scenes – including a former border watchtower

Back at the Greenwich Promenade my next destination was Schloss Tegel, the ‘palace’ where Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt spent much of their time in Berlin and which is still lived in by Wilhelm’s descendants – many Berliners now refer to it as the ‘Humboldtschloss’. It is only open on Mondays, from May to September and entrance is with a guided tour. I decided that I would go for the 4pm slot – the last tour of the year. I crossed the Sechserbrücke, a former toll bridge, at the north end of the promenade, continued along quiet suburban streets and turned up at Schloss Tegel just as the guide was dispatching the previous group of about 20 visitors. I couldn’t believe my luck when I discovered that I was the sole visitor for the final tour.

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The front of Schloss Tegel

The brilliant von Humboldt brothers are famed throughout Germany. Wilhelm (1767-1835) was a Prussian minister, philosopher and linguist who founded the first University in Berlin and Alexander (1769-1859) was a geographer, naturalist, explorer and influential proponent of Romantic philosophy and science. In September 2019 the Humboldt Forum is due to opens its doors to the public. This exciting, large-scale museum project, named after Alexander von Humboldt, will be a world centre for culture. It is currently under construction on the site of the Berliner Stadtschloss, the former Prussian and Imperial royal palace, demolished in 1950 after being damaged by bombing in World War II, and later the East German Palast der Republik, demolished in 2008. The inaugural Artistic Director of the Humboldt Forum is Neil Macgregor, formerly Director of the British Museum in London. For current webcam progress on the construction of the Humboldtforum follow this link.

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Statue of Alexander von Humboldt in front of the University

To get the full impact of a visit to Schloss Tegel, I would recommend first reading ‘The Invention of Nature’, a recent illustrated biography of Alexander von Humboldt by Andrea Wulf and winner of many awards. It is a treasury of information and takes you into the universe of Alexander’s mind which connected all aspects of nature. Alexander von Humboldt was the first proponent of ‘environmentalism’ and was a huge influence on Darwin. This book also gives you details of Wilhelm’s life and both brothers’ relationship with Schloss Tegel, surrounded by ancient forests and meadows.

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Schloss Tegel has been in the Humboldt family since the mid-18th Century. It was originally a country manor for the Elector of Brandenburg and was given its present appearance in the early-1820s when Wilhelm had it enlarged on classical lines by the famous Prussian architect, Friedrich Schinkel. Wilhelm had been Prussian Ambassador in Rome and developed a taste for all things classical, so the building is not only classical in style but the rooms open to the public are full of Roman and Greek statues and reliefs. The entrance is designed as an old Roman atrium complete with a central fountain that Wilhelm and his cultured wife Caroline brought back with them from Rome.

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Atrium

Although all the paintings from Schloss Tegel were removed for safe keeping during the war, they were confiscated by the Soviets and have never been returned. Much of the furniture is still original though and most of the statues, together with the building’s inventory, found their way back to the GDR in the late-1950s so that the family has been able to recreate the building essentially as it was when Wilhelm and Caroline lived there.

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When Wilhelm died, Schloss Tegel was passed on to their two daughters and their sons inherited larger von Humboldt properties elsewhere. The elder daughter, Adelheid, died childless and the family name is now von Bülow, after the husband of Gabriele, the younger daughter. The von Bülows who currently live in Schloss Tegel often give guided tours of their home themselves. However, as they were away from Berlin this week, my tour guide was an art historian whose knowledge of the building’s history and its contents was remarkable. Knowing I was especially interested in the adventures of Alexander, he took down one of Alexander von Humboldt’s large original atlases from the library shelves and showed me some of the beautifully illustrated pages. It is not permitted to take photographs of the interior of Schloss Tegel, but I have included some pictures from the booklet giving the history of the house and was able to take a shot out of a first floor window which captures the Arcadian setting.

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The library, the staircase and the blue salon

After the tour, I explored the grounds in the late afternoon sunshine. It is only a ten-minute stroll down to the peaceful family cemetery on the edge of the forest. Here is the memorial Wilhelm erected to his wife and the graves of both brothers and many of Wilhelm’s descendants – Alexander never married.

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View from the first floor window

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The cemetery in the forest

From the cemetery, it’s worth continuing a little further into the forest to see the 900-year old oak tree, ‘DIcke Marie’, reputedly the oldest tree in Berlin. It was given its name of ‘fat Mary’ by the Humboldt brothers as children, comparing it to their well-loved cook at the Schloss.

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‘DIcke Marie’

There are some spectacularly tall trees in the forests of Tegel. If it’s too cold to be on the water, try the walk described in Berlin Unwrapped (Page 101) which takes you through the forest from Alt-Heiligensee to Alt-Tegel. My latest discovery for excellent Kaffee und Kuchen at the end of the day is Café Wetterstein in Alt-Tegel with its wooden rafters and candlelight.

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The coolest of squares

The coolest of squares

There’s nothing like a pretty square in a busy city – a place to sit and chill, take a break from the rush and linger over a meal or drink. Savignyplatz in Charlottenburg offers all this and more, yet remains far from the madding crowd, despite its central location. Prenzlauer Berg or Friedrichshain may be ‘on trend’, but the nightlife around Savignyplatz is just as buzzing, with less hype and more substance. And by day, it’s perfect for lunch at a pavement café and a starting point for a stroll around local shops off the Ku’damm. It’s easy to get to as well – only one stop from Zoo Station on the S-Bahn.

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Arriving at Savignyplatz by S Bahn

Like many other places in Berlin, Savignyplatz has French origins in its design and its name. The square was originally laid out in 1862 as part of the Hobrecht Plan for urban Berlin, based on the boulevards and squares of Hausmann’s renovation of Paris under Napoleon III. In 1887, it was named after Karl Friedrich von Savigny, a well-connected lawyer who played an important role in Berlin political and academic life in the mid-19th Century. In French, the pronunciation of the word ‘Savigny’ puts the stress on the last syllable, but Berliners resolutely call it ‘Sav-ee-gny’.

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Savignyplatz in 1902

Savignyplatz is dissected by the broad avenue of Kantstraβe which runs east-west, and a total of seven streets fan out from the two halves of the square. In 1892, it became a public park and four years later, Savignyplatz S-Bahn station was opened, with the overhead railway running atmospherically along the south side of the square. Herbaceous borders and shaded arbours were added in 1926 and two identical bronze sculptures of a ‘Knabe mit Ziege’ (‘Boy with goat’)  were placed on the northern part of the square in 1931. When they were replaced after the war in 1955, only one was an original – the other is a copy.

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Views of the square today

For much of the post-war period Savignyplatz remained rather neglected, although the surrounding area of Charlottenburg was one of the hubs of West Berlin’s nightlife. This area was also the centre of the student demonstrations in the 1960s. It still attracts students, as well as the ‘Alte 68er’ – a term Germans give to what we call loosely describe as ‘ageing left-wing intellectuals’. In 1987, it was given a facelift for the celebrations of the 750th Anniversary of Berlin. The original kiosk designed by Grenander, the architect responsible for many of Berlin’s U-Bahn stations, was rebuilt and is now a popular currywurst stand. The brick cabin dating back to 1926 wasn’t reconstructed until 2007 and features an eye-catching contemporary art installation illuminated at night.

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The modernised kiosk and cabin 

Savignyplatz has always had an alternative vibe. In the 1920s it attracted scores of artists, writers and celebrities. The Expressionist painter, Georg Grosz, lived at 5 Savignyplatz, before he emigrated to the States in the 1930s and the poet Mascha Kaléko was just around the corner in Bleibtreustraβe. When she also left in 1938, she published these haunting lines in the ‘Aufbau’ journal of German emigrés in America. They translate literally as: “I travelled around the world a lot before those ‘thousand years‘. Foreign lands were beautiful, only a substitute. The name of my homesickness was Savignyplatz.”:

“Ich bin vor jenen ‘tausend Jahren’, viel in der Welt herumgefahren. Schön war die Fremde, doch Ersatz. Mein Heimweh hieβ Savignyplatz.“

There is indeed something nostalgic about Savignyplatz, which finds its echo in many of the surrounding restaurants and bars housed in grand Wilhemine-style buildings. My favourite is the café that never sleeps – Schwarzes Café (‘Black Café’) at 148 Kantstraβe, two minutes from the square. It’s open round the clock and epitomises laid-back, dimly-lit Berlin café society. David Bowie and Iggy Pop hung out there in the late 1970s when it first opened. The more upmarket Paris Bar, a little further along Kantstraβe, has a glitzy cult following and a degree of egotism. Glossy photos on the walls bear witness to all the actors and film stars who have dined there. This was once the West Berlin restaurant to be seen in. By contrast, the wonderful Florian, tucked away at 52 Grolmanstraβe, is where the illustrious go to escape attention. Unsurprisingly, both the food and the service are both outstanding. Everything is organic and the menu has a South German accent. It’s open every day from 6pm and the kitchen serves food until midnight. Booking is essential.

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Looking into the Schwarzes Café and Florian

For a traditional German meal in a cosy pub atmosphere complete with wooden panelling and curios, a visit to the Die Dicke Wirtin (‘The Fat Landlady’) on the north side of Savignyplatz is a must. This Berlin institution has been going strong for over 80 years and has the ‘quaint’ factor, and tends to attract group bookings by tour bus companies, so a table reservation is recommended here too.

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The quaint interior of the Dicke Wirtin

For a retro feel though, I prefer the Zwiebelfisch (‘Onion Fish’) a café bar at 7-8 Savignyplatz, open from midday until six in the morning and still frequented by aspiring bohemians. Time stopped here in the 1960s and it’s still a perfect place for putting the world to rights in the early hours, surrounded by old posters and photos from West Berlin days. The Spectator magazine seems to agree with me. It describes the Zwiebelfisch as simply the best bar in the world.

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Chilling in the Zwiebelfisch

While on the subject of bars, the cool Hefner Bar on the corner of Savignyplatz and Kantstraβe, serves first-class cocktails to start or end the evening. It has that slick lounge bar quality that comes at a price. By contrast, the Gainsbourg le Club Americain, which has now moved to the south side of the square in the Jeanne-Mammen-Bogen, is an old Savignyplatz haunt with all the smoky Parisian hip and great cocktails its name promises, but in a Berlin setting under the S-Bahn arches. There’s live music from Thursdays to Saturdays.

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Inside Hefner and outside Gainsbourg

But the most well-known music venues in this area are the A-Trane and Quasi Modo. A-Trane has a good restaurant as well as being a great jazz club. Quasi Modo, nearer Zoo Station, is a basement club under the Delphi-Filmpalast cinema and next to the Theater des Westens. It opened back in 1975 in what used to be a student pub and has a wide programme of live music as well as some cabaret and comedy. Both A-Trane and Quasi Modo have websites giving details of their music events in English.

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The A-Trane entrance

Facing Savignyplatz itself there are about 10 restaurants to choose from. They all spill out on to the pavement and even in colder weather, people sit outside to enjoy the prospect of the square, huddled under the blankets provided. It’s always fun to walk around the square studying the different menus. I love Brel for its total Frenchness and the AndaLucia tapas café for its Spanish warmth. There are several perfectly good Italian restaurants to choose from, but nothing to beat the pizza at the 12 Apostel in the passage leading to the S-Bahn station. If you like Vietnamese food, I can recommend both Mr Hai and Friends and Pho Nguyen.

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Pavement café society

Finally, you can browse for hours in the shops on and around Savignyplatz. Bücherbogen has beautiful art books and Marga Schoeller in Knesebeckstraβe stocks a large range of books in English. Kantstraβe is well known for its design shops and galleries and there are boutiques up and down Bleibtreustraβe and Knesebeckstraβe. Berlin Unwrapped has all the details in the Charlottenburg section of ‘Buy, buy Berlin’. But here are two additions; at 88 Knesebeckstraβe is Berliner ZInnfiguren, a collector’s dream shop selling antique tin soldiers and cake enthusiasts should head for the colourful Der Kuchenladen (‘The Cake Shop’) at 138 Kantstraβe. This shop and café has one of the best selections of cakes in Berlin and with over 50 to choose from, you may have to go back time and again. It’s open every day from 10am until 10pm.

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Books, cakes and tin soldiers